Updated You may not have heard of the Heard and McDonald Islands – it's one of the most remote places on the planet just north of Antarctica – but thanks to one of the quirks of the internet you are able to own a piece of it. Or at least you were.
Thanks to being recognized as its own territory, the islands have an international two-letter designation and so their own place on the internet: domain names ending in .hm.
But if reports in the past few weeks are to be believed, the person running the islands' internet registry, Australian Ed Sweeney, has gone AWOL and people who have previously paid $50 a year to register their .hm domains have found themselves locked out of their accounts and unable to renew them.
Emails to the .hm registry have gone unanswered for several weeks, the business' phone line is dead, and a trawl of previously known .hm websites have all gone dark: the world's most remote island appears to have vanished and we're only just now noticing.
How is that even possible in 2019? Well, it's largely thanks to a man called Jon Postel. Postel was one of the very earliest internet engineers and ended up in charge of its most fundamental directory; one that defines which endings exist online and who runs them.
Postel and others decided to create an internet registry for every country on the planet – think Germany's .de or Britain's .uk – and figured the least complicated way of doing them was to use the international standard organization's ISO 3166 list of country codes. Anything on that list could be added to the internet.
But at the time very few people knew how to set up and run an internet registry and so Postel ended up handing over control of the roughly 250 database entries to anyone he knew that had an interest, some kind of connection to the place it represented, and the technical know-how to run a registry.
That, presumably, is how Edward Sweeney ended up in charge of the Heard and McDonald Islands online. The .hm registry was added to the internet in July 1997 and when the dotcom boom exploded people's interest in the global network around 2000, Sweeney developed what was then a state-of-the-art registration system for .hm domains, setting it up at www.registry.hm.
You can still see the original setup because, well, it's never really been updated. Visiting registry.hm is like taking a step back in time when webpages were hand-coded HTML and images were frowned upon.
The website shows that it has been tended until at least 2017 and those paying $50 a year – recently $35 a year – for their chosen .hm domains were given access to a membership area where they can make changes, update contact details, connect up their websites and so on. At some point in the past two years though, that system has simply stopped working.
We've spoken to two .hm registrants, one who registered their name in 2016 and one who registered it all the way back in 2000, and both have been unable to login to the system since the new year. Their domains are due to expire, meaning they will be removed from the internet, and they have no way of stopping it.
So where is the man officially in charge of .hm, Ed Sweeney? No one knows. In fact, even in the close-knit registry community, no one has heard from him. We've spoke to four current or former registry managers and all them vaguely remember Ed Sweeney from around 20 years ago, when he used to turn up at internet industry events. But they've not seen him since 2000.
Despite using every contact we can find for Ed and his registry, we've heard nothing and nor have his frustrated customers. His contact phone number – run by a company in Colorado called PacNames - is dead. PacNames' website is strangely reminiscent of the bare bones HM registry website – and is hosted on the same servers. The HM registry contact emails aren't bouncing but neither are they being replied to. The billing emails are bouncing.
Is it possible that Ed Sweeney had been taken ill, or worse, and not given anyone the passwords or logins to run the .hm registry? Do his friends even know that he owns a piece of the internet?
So how do we resolve this?
What makes the issue even stranger is that there is no one to go to get the issue fixed, or even to find out if Ed Sweeney is still alive. The country-code registries exist entirely autonomously – like nation states – and so even the global DNS overseer ICANN has no way, or right, to make changes.
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The organization that runs the IANA function – the directory that Jon Postel ran when he handed out the country codes – also has no jurisdiction over the registry once it's been allocated. Instead, according to its own rules, it has to wait until there is a request to transition the registry to someone else and the current owner has to agree – even if, in the case of Afghanistan's .af registry, the operator is dead.
Of course there have been exceptions – most notably when the government of a specific country has made it plain they want a change made and ICANN has gone to some trouble to find a way of approving it.
But there is no government of the Heard and McDonald Islands – even the seals that once lived there have gone. The Australian government has the most claim – in fact, it claims the fishing grounds around the island. But even the Australian government has stayed clear of .hm and actually hosts its website for the islands on Antarctica's .aq registry – yes, there is also a registry for Antarctica.
So where does this leave .hm and the people that have .hm internet addresses? Well, let's leave it to the internet to decide. Does anyone living in Australia happen to know of an internet engineer called Edward Sweeney who may have spent the past 20 years in charge of the world's most isolated islands? If so, could you reach out to him, or us, and we'll try to get this .hm thing sorted. ®
Updated to add: Ed’s alive!
After days of chasing, and within an hour of publishing this article, it turns out that Ed is alive and well. He emailed to tell us: "The registry is not down. Operation of all domain names within .HM is normal, with all customers receiving DNS resolution."
He acknowledges that there was a problem: “There is an issue concerning processing via one of our payment processors which currently affects certain tasks conducted via the website's customer self-help portal.”
What about the dead telephone, bouncing emails, and failure to respond for weeks? We’ve asked, and will update if he gets back.