shutterstock_53719408Two-letter country-specific domain extensions like .au for Australia and .cn for China are known as country-code top-level domains (“ccTLDs”) and they have been in existence for years.  There are 243 listed, and of the 184 that are actively allowing registration, 84 are unrestricted— meaning anyone from anywhere can simply register names.  In fact, the past few years have demonstrated that the sale of ccTLDs can be very lucrative for financially struggling governments, raising millions fairly quickly without a lot of effort.

We have seen some of these domain extensions become rather popular because the assigned country code mirrors widely recognized words or symbols.  Examples include Libya’s “.ly”, which is used as an adverbial/adjectival suffix in English, and the island nation of Tuvalu’s “.tv”, which has become the home for video content for both major corporations and small businesses.  Telecommunications firm Neustar bought Columbia’s “.co” domain name in a $109 million dollar deal because “.co” is much more widely recognized as an abbreviation for company.

Artsy — a social platform for sharing and purchasing art — occupied the domain Art.sy. The “.sy” in the URL is the country code for Syria. .Sy domains are ultimately registered with and purchased from a Syrian Internet authority. Although Artsy had registered Art.sy in 2011, before sanctions were imposed, Artsy’s annual payments to maintain the domain meant they were breaking sanctions.

This was an accident, of course. As the CEO wrote to the Slate reporter, Artsy chose the domain because it, “perfectly captures Art.sy’s mission and accessible character, and is the shortest english spell-able domain that begins with the word ‘art’ making it perfect for sharing on social networks.”

“To call your company by that name, it’s cute,” sanctions specialist Mark Dubowitz told Slate, “but it’s not that cute when you consider the country whose name you are using is responsible for killing Americans.”

Soon after, Art.sy changed its url to Artsy.net (a change that cost them “under $50,000.” – Priceonomics

The success of these ccTLDs in niche areas often fuels inquiries from clients about whether they should register domains in these countries as well.  There are certainly valid reasons for doing so, like global brand protection and brand extension.  There is also the opportunity to register short, ‘cutesy’ domains— Facebook’s “fb.me” registered in Montenegro quickly springs to mind.  But there are also risks that are often overlooked such as civil war and other internal political conflicts which could result in sudden seizures or shutdowns of the foreign domain.  Businesses should also keep in mind that some of these countries may selectively monitor and filter content in a bit of systematic censorship.

The Libyan Crisis gave many foreign domain owners a first-hand look at how internal politics could disrupt their online businesses.  During the conflict, all of the servers at the Libyan Spider registrar were shut down for three days without warning by their host, Softlayer.  The US government ordered the shutdown to cut off the Internet access of government organizations in Libya, but the move affected thousands of international clients who had nothing to do with Libya except for their domains.  Clearly, relying solely on .ly and other ccTLDs could have devastating consequences for businesses.

Over the years Libya has been notorious for many things, including its links to the Lockerbie bombing and the often bizarre activities of its leader, Muammar Gaddafi.

Now, those have spilled over onto the internet, where western companies which have been buying domain names with the trendy suffix “.ly”, owned by Libya, have abruptly begun to wonder whether they have made a wise decision in basing their business around it.

That follows the abrupt enforced shutdown of vb.ly, a “link shortening” site run by Ben Metcalfe and Violet Blue, after it was declared that the content of the site was “against Sharia law”. – The Guardian

Businesses, especially those with global brands, should approach ccTLDs with caution due to these issues, as well as others, such as potential consumer and brand identity confusion.  Unless the strategy for the brand has been fully developed, it is always better to start your brand management efforts from the top with a .com domain first, then strategically make use of other web extensions such as ccTLD’s.

Tracy Fogarty

Founder & CEO at eNaming
With over 20 years in the brokerage business, Tracy Fogarty has helped thousands of clients achieve their goals on both sides of the negotiation table. Creative and result oriented professional, Ms. Fogarty strives on honest communication, value proposition, the big picture perspective, and bottom-line profitability.