Many tech firms are in the dark about a potential and unique risk to their business.
In this article, I’ll explain the history of the sparsely populated island that .io belongs to, and why it could have serious implications for tech firms across the world.
Where does .io come from?
The British Indian Ocean Territory is a territory in the Indian Ocean governed by the UK, which houses over 1,000 small islands of the Chagos Archipelago.
You’ll recognise the country code top-level domain (ccTLD) for BIOT as the extremely popular .io domain used by tech startups the world over.
It is without a doubt that .io has been one of the fastest-growing ccTLDs in the past decade due to its early adoption by the tech community. It has helped businesses to become instantly recognisable as part of the tech world, with .io said to be a loving nod to IT terms, ‘input’ and ‘output’.
Although applicants for .io domains can exist anywhere in the world, they are not likely to live on the islands themselves. The largest island is Diego Garcia, which the UK leased to the US in 1968 for use as a military base.
Diego Garcia only has around 2,000-4,000 military personnel and supporting contractors based there, and no civilians are allowed in or out of the island without permission.
So how did the .io domain go from the ccTLD of a military base to a firm favourite with Silicon Valley tech firms?
And will the complex political history of the BIOT come back to bite the tech firms who capitalised on the .io trend?
Why do tech companies choose .io domains?
Early adopters in the tech world chose the .io domain for a number of reasons, perhaps initially to reference input/output, but also due to the wide availability of short and memorable names.
The .io domain has only been available since 1997, and so there were a lot more options available to applicants than there were with more established domains.
Predictably, the price of .io domains has now increased following the surge of popularity, but early adopters were able to get hold of good quality .io at a fraction of the price of a .com counterpart.
A lot of tech firms also capitalised on the array of possibilities for domain hacks with words ending in io.
This even caught on outside the tech world and was used by Marco Rubio in 2016 – ‘rub.io’ was a particularly convenient URL for his US Presidential Campaign. Hillary Clinton’s team clearly thought the same and used a .io for link shortening during her Presidential run.
Another factor is that Google treats .io as a generic top-level domain rather than a territory-specific one, so the potential reach through organic isn’t hindered, despite it technically being a ccTLD.
The surge in popularity for the .io seems harmless and risk-free, especially if you’re an early-stage startup without the funds for a three or four-letter .com domain for your business. However, the history of the location attached to the .io domain is complex and controversial.
The controversial history of BIOT
The British Indian Ocean Territory has a dark past, starting with the detachment of the Chagos Islands from Mauritius. During this time, over 2,000 Chagossian people were forced from the islands with minimal compensation.
The former islanders have been campaigning to return home ever since and have even taken their case to the European Court of Human Rights. The Prime Minister of Mauritius has described the expulsion of the Chagossian people as a ‘crime against humanity’ and has explored bringing these charges against the UK.
In February 2019, the International Court of Justice ruled that the UK should end its administration of the Chagos Islands as soon as possible. Then in May, the UN General Assembly ruled that the BIOT forms part of Mauritius and the UK should ‘withdraw its colonial administration’ within a period of six months, which was supported by 116 member states.
Britain has refused to comply with this ruling and has continued to maintain administration over the islands. It has even said that the UK could jeopardise its permanent seat on the UN security council unless it resolves the situation.
Diego Garcia has been a launching point for US military actions in the Middle East since the 1960s, and the island regularly hits the headlines due to its strategic geographical location. The initial lease to the US was for 50 years, but in 2016, the UK extended this agreement to 2036.
Tech firms caught up in human rights debate
There has been additional controversy on whether or not the UK receives a share of profits from the sale of .io domains, prompted by the investigative work of David Meyer in 2014.
Meyer’s articles inspired several companies using .io domains to issue press releases on their company values and some donated to the charities of Chagossian people. The Dark Side of .io encouraged tech startups using .io domains to match their domain registration fee in the form of a donation to Chagos support charities.
However, despite the initial surge of articles in 2014, it is difficult to find documented instances where a startup has given up their .io domain due to the politics of the Chagos Islands.
Edit: The same week this article was published, the well-loved diagram tool draw.io announced it was slowly moving over to diagrams.net during 2020.
What’s the threat to .io?
Eleanor Bradley, MD Registry Solutions and Public Benefit at Nominet, discussed this issue in her blog post for the launch of the Online World Map in December 2019. Bradley questioned whether tech businesses could face losing their domains in the wake of the UN ruling.
If the UK was to give up administration of the BIOT, the future of the .io ccTLD would be up in the air. In a similar way to the UK business who may no longer eligible to renew their .eu domains after Brexit, what impact could the increasing pressure on the UK have on .io?
ICANN’s former General Manager of Public Participation Kieran McCarthy speculated that if administration of the Chagos islands transferred to Mauritius, so would all .io domains.
Could Mauritius scrap .io?
Over 270,000 domains are registered with .io, which would certainly provide a source of income to Mauritius. However, McCarthy states that although it is unlikely, it is ‘not inconceivable’ that the registry could be scrapped altogether.
An important consideration would be on how Mauritius wished to price and regulate the usage of the ccTLD.
Currently, registry services for .io are provided by Internet Computer Bureau via the NIC.IO website, and there are minimal rules placed on registering domains.
The main restriction is that no .io domain can be used for sexual, pornographic, or illegal purposes.
If Mauritius was to take over .io, it is likely to make changes to the terms and conditions of domain registration, and it would be able to make pricing changes.
According to McCarthy, Mauritius has, “shown a willingness to intervene in its own .mu top-level domain… it refused to renew an agreement to run the .mu registry in 2012.”
As the EU did when the UK left the European Union, the administrator can refuse re-registration of the domain for non-residents, so in theory, Mauritius could restrict .io applicants to residents of the country. Again, this does seem unlikely but is indeed a possibility.
There’s very little in the NIC.IO legal documentation about what would happen in the case of ccTLD retirement or restriction, aside from a general statement on liability: “the applicant agrees that in no circumstances will NIC.IO be liable for any loss of profit loss of business or anticipated savings suffered by the Applicant howsoever incurred.”
What happens when a ccTLD is retired?
According to the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority:
When a ccTLD is no longer eligible, typically due to the country or code’s removal from the ISO 3166-1 standard, the operator is expected to develop a transition plan… and ultimately retire the domain.
The guidance goes on to state:
…the manager is expected to design and execute a method of notifying impacted registrants that the domain is to be retired, and develop a timeline to transition…
As countries are typically replaced with new successor countries, this process is usually performed in conjunction with the delegation of new ccTLDs. Usually, there is a transition period of several years so that there is plenty of time for registrants to transition to the new domain.
IANA provides reports on the assignment and re-assignment of TLDs and there have been instances where ccTLDs for retired country codes persist, such as “.SU” which previously represented the Soviet Union.
ICANN announced back in 2006 that it was seeking input on how IANA should manage these situations. This resulted in a working council for the retirement of ccTLDs, which has been ongoing for a number of years.
The most recent version of their timeline was released back in December and stated that the interim paper on their findings would be published in February 2020.
ICANN and IANA seemingly recognise the need to establish processes for when countries stop being countries, when country codes become obsolete and what the rules are for registrars.
It is a fascinating problem that requires consideration from a number of angles.
What happens to the domain history & previous marketing efforts?
There needs to be the fundamental understanding that domains are leased, not owned, and the registrars can take them back.
Consider what happens during an unsuccessful domain migration and the extraordinary damage it can do to your business.
Like with many things in SEO, the conversation leads back to links. However, when changing domain names, there is always the inherent risk of losing more than just your links — especially in the case of a .io migration when you won’t have the option of redirecting your history.
If the .io domain is restricted or retired from public use, you’re not going to be able to retain it, point its DNS records, and maintain a list of redirects (even at a basic level).
You’re effectively moving to a new ccTLD/gTLD and embarking on a damage limitation/signal reclamation exercise, knowing you’re on the back foot.
Over time, your website naturally gains a footprint and becomes synonymous with your brand, and we encourage this through things such as schema, social signals, and our traditional marketing mix.
As a result, your domain, along with data points such as your MREID, become your digital IDs, and not being able to forward them correctly, leaves potential risks and variables unmitigated.
As described in the IANA guidance, there would likely be a transition period of several years to move over to a new domain. The solution would likely be to rebuild your site and link profile over this transition period but getting all the links back to exactly as they were before would be near impossible.
Considerations when choosing a ccTLD
To summarise, the recommendation here isn’t to stop buying .io domains or move over to a different one immediately.
However, it is important to be aware of the geographical significance of the .io domain, or any ccTLD, when purchasing one as an investment for your company.
The connection to the tech community is a strong pro on the list for .io, but assess the cons, too.
Research where your ccTLD comes from, whether the location has any significant history, and if there are any political or controversial issues related to that location that you should know about.
Choosing a domain to build your business on is an important investment and knowing the background of the TLD you choose is important to minimise any potential risk in the future.
Need help with a domain migration or some advice when purchasing a domain for your business? Get in touch to find out more.