The internet will make space for South Sudan this month, with plans to create a new top-level domain (TLD) for the world's newest nation.
There's only one catch: the new country-code TLD is .ss, which is formally listed as a hate symbol thanks to its use by the Nazi party's Schutzstaffel (or SS) in the 1920s through to the 1940s.
The SS maintained the police state of Nazi Germany and was responsible, among other things, for the genocidal killing of six million Jews in the Holocaust and millions of socialists, homosexuals, Roma, Russians, and anyone else Hitler's regime took a dislike to. Its leaders were found guilty of war crimes as well as crimes against humanity, and many were hanged in the aftermath of the Second World War.
As such the "SS" symbol is a powerful reminder of the very worst atrocities carried out by the Nazis, and, unfortunately, maintains current relevance thanks to having been adopted by white supremacists and neo-Nazis.
On the flipside, South Sudan was formed in 2011 when it broke away from Sudan following an independence vote that was supported by nearly 99 per cent of the affected populace.
As part of the process of becoming a new nation, ministers started asking the relevant international organizations for their own identifier: including its own international telephone extension (+211) and two-letter country abbreviation.
The new government formally asked the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) to give it the .ss two-letter abbreviation, saying at the time that it had been told that there was an association with the Nazis in Europe but had applied for it anyway. Presumably as an African nation, they weren't all that bothered by a 70-year-old European problem.
But despite being formally given the .ss identifier by the ISO back in August 2011, nearly eight years later it has still not been added to the internet. That may be about to change however with the board of the body in charge of the internet's domain name system, US-based ICANN, including "Delegation of the .SS (South Sudan) country-code top-level domain" on its agenda for a meeting on January 27.
ICANN officially follows the ISO 3166 list to decide what can and cannot be given a two-letter TLD (all other domains must have at least three letters) and so the issue should be a formality.
In reality however the organization has frequently imposed its own views, often at the behest of the US government. In the past that has included adding new TLDs when politically convenient (such as the addition of the European Union's .eu extension), as well as blocking changes through endless procedural delays (Iran's .ir has had issues), and even assisting or turning a blind eye to unusual changes in ownership.
The best example is probably when Afghanistan's .af was handed over to the country's US-run transitional government when America invaded the country in retaliation for the Taliban government refusing to hand over Osama bin Laden.
Even though most "redelegations" take months or years, Afghanistan's internet presence was handed over in just three weeks. Under the rules, the previous administrator must formally approve a change for a redelegation to occur.
In this case, the administrator of .af prior to the US invasion, one Abdul Razeeq, is thought to have perished in the bombing of capital Kabul during the invasion. Certainly no one in the broader internet community heard from him as soon as the bombing began.
Except the US government managed to supply a one-paragraph letter signed by Mr Razeeq several months after he had disappeared authorizing the handover. He then promptly disappeared again and has not been heard from since. You can still view the letter [PDF] because it makes up a part of the formal redelegation documents.
South Sudan's ".ss" domain appears to have been swirling around in bureaucracy for eight years. This reporter was present at a meeting of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) in Geneva back in 2012 when a representative from a different African nation complained that ICANN was delaying introduction of the .ss TLD as part of a larger effort to stop the United Nations from gaining greater influence over the domain name system.
Nothing to see here
At the time, ICANN's representative assured the meeting that the delays were not intentional but simply a result of a complicated delegation process that had been misunderstood and the issue would be resolved shortly thereafter.
Aside from a few brief mentions at meetings in 2012, the issue disappeared however. This was likely due to the fact that the country entered a lengthy and painful civil war. Despite a peace treaty signed in 2015, it wasn't until June 2018 that a unity government was formed.
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In the aftermath of the initial peace treaty in 2015, the South Sudanese government started inquiring again about its internet extension: a very brief note from a representative from ICANN's Governmental Advisory Committee (GAC) notes that they met the South Sudanese ICT minister in Rwanda to "advise on ccTLD .ss delegation" in December 2016.
It's not known what the result of the discussion was but soon after others in the ICANN community started raising the issue of South Sudan's domain name limbo in non-governmental meetings, suggesting an effort by the South Sudanese to raise the issue more broadly.
It's been more than six months since the conflict was finally resolved and the issue is finally on the board agenda for approval. But even now it seems ICANN still has reservations about the introduction of .ss. The issue is on the board's main agenda, rather than its consensus agenda, meaning that there is not unanimous agreement and a discussion of the decision is expected.
For those that suspect the US government continues to pull the strings behind the scenes however, the news earlier this month that South Sudan accepted economic assistance from Russia may help explain why the issue of South Sudan's internet has suddenly reappeared, seven years after it was formally assigned.
So are Nazis, civil war, or high-level politics to blame? We may never know. But one thing is for certain: the South Sudanese government will need to invest in abuse mitigation domain services or it could find itself become neo-Nazi central online. ®