Domain name colonialism

May 4, 2019 (1649 words) :: A brief history of Colombia's .co TLD as a neat little illustration of modern-day digital colonialism.
Tags: ideology

This post is day 124 of a personal challenge to write every day in 2019. See the other fragments, or sign up for my weekly newsletter.

The basic story of colonialism goes something like this. An imperial power - e.g. Britain or Spain beginning many centuries ago, or the United States more recently - wishes to expand its sphere of influence beyond its formal territorial boundaries. Why? Access to natural resources is usually a big part of the story, but often it’s also about people, who could constitute a cheap labour force or a market for commodities. Sometimes it’s more about securing the geographic area, which might be a strategic choke point for trade, or a potential military base.

The most straightforward result of this is the establishment of an empire with colonial outposts. The colonising power manages its colonies by appointing their rulers and ensuring that they run things according to what’s most beneficial for the colonising power. Historically, this hasn’t been a particularly sustainable arrangement, because colonies are made up of people, not robots; some of these people will, eventually, realise that it is not in their best interest to be part of someone else’s colony, and they will push for self-determination. The founding history of the US is a memorable example of this, as were the independence movements after the first and second world wars. Countries that had previously only existed as a means of supplying raw materials, labour, and/or captive markets to a faraway land declare independence from their colonial power, and regain some form of autonomy.

But empire is a slippery thing. Formal empire may have receded in some parts of the world, but that doesn’t necessary mean a wholesale dismantling of empire overnight; more common is its replacement by informal empire instead. Former colonies in the Global South may technically no longer be in the thrall of imperial powers in Europe, but they have escaped into a market-dominated system which ensures that they are still beholden to powers outside their control. Sometimes this is mediated through global institutions like the World Bank or IMF, which, since the late 20th century, have imposed a particular economic paradigm (the Washington Consensus, so called because these institutions are headquartered in DC) on poorer nations as a condition for their receiving financing; this drives outcomes that are good for global (particularly American) capital, and bad for native indigents. Just like good old regular colonialism, really, but in a way that’s more dispersed, with the threads of power less visible and thus harder to challenge.

So that’s the background, and forgive me for any handwaving or lack of clarity here, because I’m definitely not an expert on the topic. Today’s blog post will focus on what I see as a particularly fascinating mode of expression of modern-colonialism: domain names.

Domain names are weird, because they’re not exactly a natural resource, but they’re allocated to countries as if they were. Every country has its own two-letter top level domain (TLD, or ccTLD for “country code top-level domain”): Canada has .ca; the UK has .uk (commonly paired as; the United States has .us, but it’s less common, for reasons that will become apparent within a few paragraphs.

Now, when the system was designed, it was probably assumed that each country’s TLD would be reserved for activities relevant to that country: businesses, organisations, schools, events, government agencies, media, whatever. But once ccTLDs became more culturally widespread, they started to evolve from their original purpose. The result was an explosion of domain hacks: why register when you could register and add the “del” subdomain to make (a much-loved bookmarking tool acquired by Yahoo in 2005)? There’s a lot of room for creativity in registering uncommon ccTLDs, especially for URL shorteners (,,, that have absolutely nothing to do with the country associated with that TLD.

Colombia’s .co domain is an especially interesting case. Some startups have embraced it as a catchy alternative to .com - examples include,,,, - but the most common use (in terms of raw traffic) is as a three-letter URL shortener by American corporations. In fact, if you look at the list of single-letter .co domain names, they are nearly all American: Twitter has; Google has; Amazon has,,; Snapchat has; has; GoDaddy has As far as I can tell, the only single-letter .co’s NOT owned by American companies are (Volvo, based in Sweden), (The Yacht Company, based in Monaco) and (, based in Denmark).

Kind of weird, isn’t it? Here we have a ccTLD theoretically reserved for the country of Colombia, and its most valuable domain names are all taken by American and European companies? Leaving aside the question of whether any country should be entitled to a particular ccTLD in the first place (given that TLDs have both regional and cultural implications, it’s confusing to mix them up), the case of .co seems like a telling demonstration of corporate colonialism in its ‘soft power’ form.

Whether or not it’s “fair” for the most valuable .co domains to be taken by Western corporations, or whether Colombia should have the right to control a TLD as potentially valuable as .co, is beyond the scope of this post. My point is rather that the distribution of .co domains tells us something about how power works in the modern geopolitical arena. A digital resource like a domain name isn’t quite the same as a natural resource like a river or mine or forest, but it’s a scarce resource all the same. Why were Western companies able to claim all these single-letter .co’s before domestic (Colombian) entities? Well, why was the US-based United Fruit Company able to own 42% of all the land in Guatemala in the early 20th century? The fact that these American corporations had more resources and more need to expand than their native counterparts can be traced back to the origins of capital accumulation, and its territorial spread through colonialism, etc etc.

Historical inequalities rarely simply go away when the conditions change: instead, they have a tendency to mutate, adapt to new conditions, new terrains, new sites of contestation. The story behind the company responsible for handling .co registration is itself a case in point: .CO Internet S.A.S, a Colombian company, bought the rights to the .co TLD in 2010, but four years later it had been acquired for over $100m by Neustar, an American company based in Virgina and listed on the NYSE. (The two companies had been partnering since 2010, which meant that Neustar had been making money from .co registrations anyway, but now .CO Internet is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Neustar.) To top things off, Neustar itself was bought up in 2017 for $2.9 billion. The buyer? A San Francisco-based private equity firm called Golden Gate Capital, which was founded as a spinoff from Bain Capital (Mitt Romney’s company).

To recap: the .co TLD, which is meant to be the Internet namespace for the country of Colombia, is indirectly owned by a multi-billion-dollar American financial juggernaut - one which also owns California Pizza Kitchen, Red Lobster, and a 75% stake in the fast fashion brand Express. It’s a neat portrait of the oddity of contemporary market-mediated imperialism. When you register a .co TLD, none of that money stays in Colombia; instead, profits are sucked up by a vampiric entity in America’s hellish epicentre, which happens to have gotten its start by buying up distressed tech companies during the dotcom crash.

But let’s zoom out a bit, because US corporations’ ownership of other countries’ ccTLDs isn’t the only example of domain name colonialism. The very structure of the domain name system is highly US-centric. Why was the Internet initially reliant on ASCII, which is a format optimised for English, and which literally stands for “American Standard Code for Information Interchange”? Why are so many globally-used programming languages designed for English speakers? Why does the US government have control over generic top-level domains like .edu, .gov, and .mil, which you’d think would be open to any country? The US barely even needs a .us, because the generic TLDs are often assumed to be US-focused unless stated otherwise (e.g., vs or

There’s no conspiracy here, simply well-trod historical fact: the role of the US military in creating the Internet in the first place, and the corresponding primacy of US institutions in maintaining the Domain Name System. Plus, the fact that American corporations are simply so damn big and wealthy, and have with the resources to buy up prime Internet real estate.

The potential controversy lies in the interpretation of the fact of the predominance of US interests in the infrastructure of the Internet, because there are political implications to the interpretation you choose. Is the US merely the height of modern civilisation, whose dominance we should cheer as societal progress? Or is it just another form of entrenched, unjust, colonial power - one that needs to be overthrown?

Sure, not all power is unjust, but the point of power is that it doesn’t have to be just in order to spread. Any sufficiently hegemonic power will create its own logic, its own rationality, its own notion of what is just. The mere existence of power becomes proof of its legitimacy. Those who are beneficiaries of the topography of imperial power - many in the core, and a select few in the periphery - are unlikely to contest the system that feeds them, whereas those who are not being served by the system will see their complaints derided as irrational, self-serving, the whine of the loser. At least, that is, until they are numerous enough to offer a real counter-hegemonic alternative: a way to overthrow the old system, and in the ashes, give birth to something new.

Power has a tendency to operate under the assumption that it’ll last forever. Somehow, it never does.

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