Size really does matter. It matters, that is, if you are looking to put up a website in Libya – and the use of a "shortener" results in creation of a domain name that is either too short, or contains the dread string "vb.ly".
This item of local censorship came to light late last month, when Ben Metcalfe and Violet Blue (nsfw) - a woman described by Forbes as the "foremost expert in the field of sex and technology" - discovered that vb.ly, a service they had been running, had been taken down by by NIC.ly (the domain registry and controlling body for Libyan domain space .ly). The business partners described vb.ly as the world’s "first and only sex-positive URL shortener".
At issue was the question of whether vb.ly was itself in breach of Libyan law, for hosting pornographic content.
The service's owners protested over the matter to NIC.ly directly. According to Mr Metcalfe, they were told by Mr Alaeddin S. ElSharif (Web services Dept. NIC.ly/Libya Telecom and Technology) that "...clause 3.5 clearly states that: 'The Applicant certifies that, to the best of his/her knowledge the domain name is not being registered for any activities/purpose not permitted under Libyan law'.
"Pornography and adult material aren’t allowed under Libyan Law, therefore we removed the domain..."
This clause related to Libyan Islamic Law, which the controllers of vb.ly claimed was not at the time available in English.
The decision was maintained despite the continuing assertion by Mr Metcalfe and Ms Blue that the site provided a service and was not itself responsible for hosting any adult material.
The case also raises a number of other serious issues. As Mr Metcalfe posted yesterday: "it sets a precedent that all websites running on a .ly domain must comply with Libyan Islamic/sharia law in order to maintain their domains. This is especially concerning for anyone running a url shortener or hosting user-generated content on a .ly domain.
In addition, a decision by NIC.ly in June 2010 means that .ly domain names less than four characters long may no longer be registered by anyone who isn’t in Libya. It surely could not be the case, as Mr Metcalfe wonders aloud, that "there is pressure for NIC.ly to do what it can to recover premium <4 letter .ly domains where possible so that they end up back in the pool only available for locals to re-register".
Metcalfe goes on to say that: "NIC.ly are being pressured to go so far with this that they would even revoke domains for reasons that don’t specifically violate any of the regulations that domain owners agreed to upon registration".
While the specific naming of domains in Libya may be of little direct relevance to most western-based businesses, it does set a precedent, both around the way in which some countries may decide to “reclaim” their domains and - for anyone trading in the Middle East – the importance of paying attention to the requirements of sharia law.
Last word to Ms Blue: "They said that a picture of me with my bare arms was illegal, my bottle of beer also illegal, and the words "sex positive" were also illegal according to the laws I was never shown, and were never applied throughout my first year of registration.
"No one tried to contact me. They took the domain without warning. The reasons are basically, because they said so."
She adds: "I guarantee you that there is far, far more porn coursing through bit.ly’s veins than vb.ly’s. They just don’t say anything about it."