Bit.ly, the url-shortening website, sounds cute with its diminutive domain name ending. So does the art world startup, Art.sy, and the popular video-sharing site, Blip.tv.
But in addition to sounding cute, these websites all have something else in common: they’re all registered in foreign countries. The .LY suffix stands for Libya, .SY stands for Syria and, believe it or not, .TV has nothing to do with television; it is the country code for the Tuvalu Islands, a series of nine slivers of earth in the middle of the South Pacific, with a population of about 10,000.
So what does it mean to have a website registered in another country? It means that your country-specific website, known as a country code Top Level Domain (ccTLD), is hosted on servers in that country.
Because of this, the owner of a foreign ccTLD takes on some risk that the site could go down if something catastrophic happens where the domain is registered. But in most cases there are safeguards in place, and Libya is the latest example of how foreign domain name owners really have little to fear.
During the recent crisis there, owners of .LY domain names – which is one of the most popular endings among American startups – got jittery.
Levi Rosol, founder of Craft.ly, a Des Moines, Iowa-based startup that aims to be a marketplace for handmade goods, said that his team had a plan to minimize the length of time their site would have gone down if they lost their registration. But thankfully, Plan B wasn’t necessary because Libya’s system also has servers in the United States and the Netherlands.
After the Internet in Libya was shut down at the end of February, there was widespread concern that the most well-known American .LY site, Bit.ly, would also go down. But it didn’t. In response the concern, the company made it clear on its site that service had never been interrupted and also put forth some information about its purchase of the .LY domain name.
The statement established that the company purchased the domain name for $75 from a registration company, similar to GoDaddy.com, that is accredited with the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN).Bit.ly also established that it does not do business in Libya, which is quite typical. In most cases, there is no requirement that the domain name buyer do business in that country.
However, owning a domain name from another country ultimately benefits that country, or at least an entity within it. With Libya, the money a company pays for a Libyan ccTLD goes to Libya Telecom and Technology, a state-owned company that, up until recently, was run by Mohamed Gaddafi, the son of the disgraced Libyan president.
In other countries, revenue from foreign domain registration might go to a private company, like GoDaddy.com, which sells .US ccTLDs, or it could go to a non-profit.
According to Max Guerin, the founder of Short.lk, a Montreal-based url-shortening company, he purchased his .LK domain name (.LK is for Sri Lanka) from Nic.lk, an independent non-profit that improves the Internet infrastructure in Sri Lanka.
A popular website for purchasing most foreign domain names is Marcaria.com, and here is a list of all country codes. According to Brad White, the Director of Global Media Affairs for ICANN, the UN assigns country code abbreviations.
Despite the popularity of these cool ccTLDs, most entrepreneurs still covet the .COM ending. And in many cases, founders buy a ccTLD because .COM is unavailable. One founder said he was actively seeking the .COM ending for his company and another refused to comment when asked if the ccTLD was a second choice, after .COM.
Still, the usage of ccTLDs is growing fast, and companies find benefits, such as the “cool” factor, in having a foreign country code ending. Plus, it’s a really safe bet. The Soviet Union no longer exists, but its old country code, .SU, somehow still does.
And in 2009, the Tuvalu Islands almost disappeared in a storm, but apparently .TV would still exist, even if the Tuvalu Islands don’t.
“I’m a proud member of the Tuvalu community,” said New York City-based Blip.tv founder, Dina Kaplan. “And I hope those islands and its people are well, but even if the islands [were to disappear], there would always be a .TV.”