Citizen-Ex’s Cultural and Political History of Top-Level Domains

Screenshot 2016-09-06 16.26.46

I was musing about the vanity domain industry in a recent post about WordPress opening bids on .blog domains (a TLD they purchased for somewhere in the neighborhood of $20 million). In the comments Tim Owens left a link to Citizen-Ex’s stories about six top-level domains. I really appreciate the way James Bridle frames the idea of algorithmic citizenship:

Algorithmic Citizenship is a new form of citizenship, one where your citizenship, and therefore both your allegiances and your rights, are constantly being questioned, calculated, and rewritten.

Along these lines, Citizen-Ex tries to materialize the intentionally nebulous, obfuscated infrastructure that defines “the cloud”:

We often think about the internet as something remote, distant, and ephemeral, and use terms like “the cloud” to describe it. But in fact, the internet is very real, and very solid: a world-wide infrastructure of computers, cables, routers – and people. And that infrastructure means its connected to real places, with real territory, real citizens, and real politics.

It is building on these ideas that the site frames the deeply political/cultural roots behind several national top-level domains such as Libya’s .ly, Scotland’s .scot, Syria’s .sy, Wales’s .cymru, Yugoslavia’s now extinct .yu, and the British Indian Ocean Territory’s .io. All the stories are worth a read, but I agree with Tim’s comment that the .io domain is of particular interest given its recent popularity amongst the tech community as an abbreviation for input-output. Bridle’s essay frames the colonial, geo-political origins of this territory nicely:

The British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT) was created in 1965, when the British government legally separated the archipelago from the colony of Mauritius, which had been part of the British Empire since 1810. In 1967, when Mauritius gained its independence, Britain hung on to its new territory. The plan was pre-meditated: for some time, the British and US governments had been quietly looking for a “clean” island to use as a base for stationing troops and listening posts in the Indian Ocean. With its central location and deep anchorages, the BIOT was perfect – apart from the fact that people already lived there.

The 2000+ inhabits of the Chagos islands, Chagossians, were removed in 1966, and the territory remains British controlled and hosts a U.S. military base housed “NSA and GCHQ listening posts, supported the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, and provided prison facilities and a rendition staging post for the CIA’s torture programme.” These things aren’t immediately apparent when you see a .io domain, but to James Bridle’s raison d’etre for the whole project, the global history of empire and colonization is everywhere written into the web when you start looking close enough. When you think about it, the questions of empire and colonization in relationship to Silicon Valley and the tech start-up mentality makes the history of the .io top level domain that much more telling.

All of this ties into a rich conversation about the promise, value and limits of domain ownership. It’s interesting how the privatization of national assets and resources (often times being themselves seized by the nations from the people that produced them) points to how the politics at play all around us is written into the domain URLs we take for granted. I would love to see a move—like with higher ed more generally—that returns funding to the public resources that make personal, online spaces free and #4life, but all indicators point in the opposite direction. It’s gotten to the point at Reclaim Hosting where we have to re-visit the decision to make ID Protection for domains optional given how aggressive so many of these scum-sucking, bottom-feeding scam companies abuse the public data associated with domains. It makes me feel dirty, and I hate that, but after reading Citizen-Ex I am realizing that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

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