After 20-year battle, Channel island Sark finally earns the right to exist on the internet with its own top-level domain

We talk to the guy who spent decades trying to make it happen

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Special report The island of Sark, a United Kingdom royal fiefdom located in the Channel Islands and measuring just two square miles (517 hectares), has succeeded in its 20-year quest to be officially recognized by the International Standards Organization (ISO).

The decision will lead to creation of a new two-letter code for the island and an addition to the internet's country codes: the .sk code is already taken by Slovakia, so Sark may end up with .cq form in reference to the original Norman dialect spelling of the island - Sercq.

That's something that Sark has been desperate to achieve thanks to the ever-growing impact of the internet on modern life. "In today's connected world, business and personal matters are increasingly transacted online," reads a quote at the start of the 54-page submission [PDF] to the ISO, written by the secretary of the group that has spent 21 years trying to make recognition a reality.

"In such a world, it makes it even more important for a small island like ours to have the ability to promote and protect its identity," Conseiller Nicolas Moloney states.

Even though Sark controls its own budget, taxation, waters, medical register, vehicle registration, licensing, legislature and fishing rights, it doesn't exist online. Instead everything is currently routed through nearby island of Guernsey, since Sark is officially part of the Bailiwick of Guernsey and has been since 1204 (it's historically complicated). Guernsey is a 45-minute boat ride away, with its own .gg notation.

With every online form in the world using the ISO's 3166 list to populate its dropdown list of territories, if you aren't on that list, you effectively don't exist on the internet. For an island strongly dependent on tourism, that is a major problem. "Our future depends on this and we therefore request support for our identity so we can be recognised correctly by the world," its petition reads.

Banking, shipping addresses of goods bought on the internet and geographical identity for trade, tourism and travel are all largely dependent these days on having a unique online identifier. Without it, Sark faced an existential threat.

A determined no

But despite the full backing the UK government, reams of evidence of its autonomy, the European Court of Human Rights specifically recognizing Sark as a dependent territory, and Sark's application fulfilling every criteria necessary to get on to the official ISO-3166 list, it has gone back and forth with the committee that decides the list for 21 years. At one point the committee even changed its own rules to prevent Sark from being recognized.

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In the end, the man behind the push, Register reader Mike Locke, realized that they were never going to get anywhere by going to the same committee over and over again and went above their heads. A meeting of the ISO's Technical Management Board, in Oslo, Norway, at the end of February heard Sark's appeal [PDF], presented by the UK government's British Standards Institution (BSI). Its decision was only announced late on Thursday last week. It reads [PDF, resolution 15]:


Noting the appeal received by BSI on 12 August 2018 against the ISO 3166/MA decision on the Sark request for an alpha code, and having reviewed the process and criteria for assignment of codes, and
Noting that there are islands that are not member states of the UN but have been assigned a code,
Supports the request from Sark, and
Requests the ISO3166/MA to assign Sark the requested code.

On Sark itself, the committee that has spent innumerable hours since 1999 trying to get approval proudly told the Chief Pleas (the parliament of Sark), that: "After much hard work both on and off island the Special Committee for the Top Level Domain is very pleased to announce that the ISO Technical Board has accepted the application and recommended approval of a Country Code for Sark and inclusion on the ISO 3166 Standard."

Shortly after, the island went into a lockdown over the novel coronavirus.

Locke-down

We spoke with Reg reader Mike Locke, who gave us a rundown of the 21-year quest. Locke doesn't live on the island but he spent much of his childhood there. His father retired on the island, and he frequently visits.

As a telecoms engineer, it was Mike who first approached Sark over the idea of applying for its own ISO listing and he was given the go-ahead by the Chief Pleas. Years later, he tells us, he realized that he should have gone through the UK government rather than applying directly to the ISO - this cost the effort a few years, he reckons.

His efforts were initially dismissed as a "crank application" but his logic was clear: if the Isle of Man (.im), Jersey (.je) and Guernsey (.gg) could all have their own codes, then why not Sark? The answer was more complex than anticipated: .je and .gg exist in large part because internet engineer Nigel Roberts - who still runs the ccTLDs - asked the man who ran the internet's root zone file at the time, Jon Postel, if he could have them. Postel said yes.

Postel lost his power to say yes not long afterwards. The United States government, recognizing how critical the internet was going to become, stepped in and formed an organization - the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) - to take over the job. IANA has been run by DNS overseer ICANN since 2000.

Sark's initial application came just as these changes were transpiring, and it was accused of "trying to jump on the bandwagon," according to Locke. He left it alone while he built up a satellite distribution business but picked it back up again in 2011 when he realized that under ISO rules, Sark should be automatically granted entry to the 3166 list because it was recognized by the United Nations Statistics Division (UNSD) as a separate territory.

That resulted in what Locke told us was "a huge set of emails" in which Sark asked to be reconsidered and the ISO went to great lengths to stick by its previous decision. Sark was forced to get the backing, again, of the UK government and resubmit its application.

Which it did - but in the meantime, one of the ISO's own criteria changed. No longer would a territory on the UNSD list get a 3166 listing "by default"; now the ISO could decide independently.

Enter the Barclays

Needless to say, Sark was turned down again. But then came another fight as the billionaire brothers, David and Frederick Barclays, set up home just off Sark and started trying to influence more control over the island.

Their efforts resulted in a legal battle that led all the way up to the European Court of Human Rights. In the end, in July 2015, Sark came out of with its autonomy clearly and distinctly recognized in law in both the UK and Europe.

With that unpleasantness behind it, Sark tried again to get its ISO listing. And this time, it recruited international law experts with special expertise in islands and had the British Standards Institute (BSI) on its side. But Sark's shock troops discovered that the ISO committee was more wedded to upholding its previous decisions than correcting errors. Its application was voted down, for the third time, in December 2018.

Locke responded - as any good engineer would - by digging into the weeds. He found that the ISO had not followed the correct appeals procedure. And so Sark appealed again - except this time, with the backing of the BSI, it went above the committee's heads to the Technical Management Board.

Even after all that, the decision came as a surprise to Locke. "It was a bit of a WTF moment," he told us this morning. "It was really unexpected."

There are still plenty of unknowns: he doesn't even know if Sark will get the .cq code it has asked for - the actual code assigned is decided purely by the ISO. And it's not known how long it will take. When South Sudan was created as a country in 2011, it took 11 weeks for it to get its official .ss code.

We asked the company that runs Jersey and Guernsey's ccTLDs, Island Networks, for its reaction and its Angelika Voss told us: "We congratulate our good neighbours in Sark on achieving this recognition by the international standards body, and would be happy to assist in any way going forwards."

When it does finally get its code, Sark will then have to apply to ICANN to get its corresponding ccTLD - a process in itself. And then wait for it to be added to the IANA-run root zone file. And then, finally, at last, Sark will exist online. ®

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