Whose web is it anyway?



Twelve years ago I remember sitting around a board-room table in Brisbane when the leaders of the Queensland University of Technology decided that the institution would purchase the ‘qut.com’ domain name as a strategic initiative. The aim was to be current, adventurous and far-seeking.

Fast-forward to two weeks ago, when it was announced (online of course) that the ‘.au’ domain name had exceeded its two millionth registration. Much was made of this. Pundits offered that it proved the expansion of Australian influence on, and in, the internet beyond the country’s relative size and importance in the digital world.

For example, in his article on the two million milestone, technology journalist Greg Thom reported Tony Staley to have said that the event ‘was an opportunity to promote the .au namespace as a vital national resource’. Staley continued prosaically, claiming that ‘.au is Australia’s home on the internet’.

I was reminded of the arguments about small cars and their power-to-weight ratios: once again, Australia was allegedly batting higher than its average in the international technology stakes. But is this true? And does it matter?

Put another way: do the typical two-letter country codes used as the suffixes for domain names actually represent something patriotic as well as something descriptive? And is it hyperbolic to claim that a two-letter namespace is ‘a vital natural resource’? What is going on here?

I have to admit that I read Staley’s comment in a sceptical frame of mind. Most of us probably do not give this issue much of a thought, even though we type the .au namespace on a daily basis. Compared to pressing issues such as climate change and natural disasters; the democratic insurrections in Egypt and Libya; refugee rights and child protection, the moniker we attach to internet country-names hardly seems worth discussing.

Strangely, though, lots of people in the world are discussing it.

It turns out that, just as Gerry Harvey and others have recently discovered, the internet is incredibly valuable real estate. It may be cyberspace, it may be digital, but the intellectual ownership, definition and commercial issues are totally real. And the range of debates is incredibly wide: from the imperialism of English to ‘top level domains’; from the International Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) to so-called ‘domain name typosquatting’.

The amounts being expended by predominantly online corporations to extend and protect their digital domains is phenomenal. For instance, in mid-January it was announced by the online Global Gold Hosting News that Facebook had paid approximately US$8.5 million to acquire the rights to just five letters—‘fb.com’. The seller? The American Farm Bureau Federation which, according to all indications, had been an innocent protector of its online patrimony some years earlier. Writing on the blog techcrunch.com, Facebook founder and cinematic legend Mark Zuckerberg is said to have quipped, ‘The Farm Bureau agreed to sell us fb.com and we in return have agreed not to sell farm subsidies.’

The Hosting News also reported that in 2009 the rights to use the name ‘insure.com’ were purchased for a total of £10.1 million—a record at the time. Clearly, just the recognition alone was deemed to be worth a huge amount.

Is this amazing? Unexpected? Slightly obscene? Perhaps it is all three. However, the trend towards valuation of internet nomenclature is undeniable. For instance, writing on the same site last month, Debra Hastings-Henry reported that former Oasis lead-singer Noel Gallagher had secured the rights to a domain title based upon his own name, ten years after the ‘noelgallagher.com’ website had been obtained by an allegedly ‘opportunist registrant’ (and Oasis fan) in Barcelona. Gallagher reportedly contacted the Spaniard, flew him to London and negotiated the repatriation of his own ‘brand name’ in person. The price? A significant amount of signed memorabilia as well as some select concert tickets. Most would argue that Gallagher did well out of the deal; meanwhile, the registration of unique namespaces gained further cachet.

For there undoubtedly is a mystique associated with such domain names. What is fascinating to observe is the fact that, despite the theoretical dominance of the English language in what we see of the internet in this country, the reality in the digital world is far from totally Anglo-centric. Wikipedia can now be read in more than 50 languages other than English. And, on 9 March this year, the Gulf Times announced the inaugural launch of domain names in Arabic in the state of Qatar. As the chief technical manager of ictQatar, Salah al-Kuwari, put it, ‘As more organisations and individuals begin adopting non-Latin domain names the Internet will literally be opened up’. And he added: ‘Country-specific domain names are an incredibly valuable national commodity’. The same process is occurring throughout the region, in Egypt, in the UAE, in Saudi Arabia.

Is there any connection here with the heightened sense of democratic national purpose in those nations? Can the internet be seen as a national marker?

Listen to the language: that of inclusivity, plurality, national resource. The trend is an intriguing one. And it is not one limited to the Middle East. For example, in November, 2010 Cyrillic language domain names were introduced for the first time in Russia. The result? In the first 30 minutes of trading, more than 80,000 internet addresses in the original Russian language were purchased in what can only be described as an online frenzy. This has all the hallmarks of real estate speculation. However, it also denotes an increasing move towards national languages in the global internet—one which I predict will continue unabated.

The point is not whether the world wide web is dominated by English, or Mandarin or Spanish—although these are the three most common languages of global websites. The point is that the commodification of the internet is responding to potent cultural and linguistic prompts, sifted through a national lens. Take the example of Wales, a peaceful, productive, English-speaking nation. There, just three weeks ago, the Hosting News reported that the country’s Deputy First Minister, Wyn Jones, petitioned ICANN to accelerate the introduction of — yes — ‘.cymru’ websites. Jones is said to have written, ‘The bid for .cymru is a linguistic and cultural bid with no opposition or ongoing issues of contention or debate.’

This world of internet signifiers is changing fast. So here is the question: Is Australia really ready for a bilingual approach to the web? Are we prepared for its multilingual future? It is no time for complacent self-congratulation on this score, especially as the National Broadband Network is being hotly debated. Paradoxically, it may be that very project—with ‘national’ in its title—which will enable us to engage fully with this global, digital world.