The dark side of .io: How the U.K. is making web domain profits from a shady Cold War land deal

Diego Garcia atoll, Chagos Islands

The .io country code top-level domain is pretty popular right now, particularly among tech startups that want to take advantage of the snappy input/output reference and the relative availability of names — Fusion.io, Wise.io and Import.io are just a few examples. But who benefits from the sale of .io domains? Sadly, not the people who ultimately should.

While .tv brings in millions of dollars each year for the tiny South Pacific island nation of Tuvalu, and .me benefits Montenegro, the people of the British Indian Ocean Territory, or the Chagos Islands, have no such luck. Indeed, profits from the sale of each .io domain flow to the very force that expelled the Chagossian or Ilois people from their equatorial land just a generation or two ago: the British government.

“A few Tarzans and Man Fridays”

The Chagossians are largely descended from African slaves brought to the previously uninhabited islands, 2,200km (1,367 miles) north-east of Mauritius, by the French in the 18th century. The British took over in the early 19th century. Slavery was abolished in 1835 and the Chagossians became contract workers on the islands’ coconut plantations. Many Indian workers joined the local population.

Map showing location of Chagos Archipeligo (red dot)

Map showing location of the Chagos Islands

In the 1960s, the U.S. decided it wanted a military base in the Indian Ocean, and it asked the British to provide unpopulated land. The U.K. dutifully detached the Chagos Islands from Mauritius, which was about to become independent, created the “British Indian Ocean Territory” and in 1966 granted the U.S. a 50-year lease to the Diego Garcia atoll (pictured above), where a military base was constructed. That facility would decades later become central to the “War on Terror” as a bomber base and secret CIA prison.

The problem, of course, was that the islands didn’t lack a civilian population, as the U.S. had required. So the British resolved to get rid of the Chagossians, with Colonial Office chief Denis Greenhill writing:

“Unfortunately along with the birds go some few Tarzans or Man Fridays whose origins are obscure and who are hopefully being wished on to Mauritius.”

The British bought and shut down the plantations in the hope of getting the Chagossians to leave of their own accord, but many stayed, so the U.K. forced them all off the islands anyway, lying to the United Nations that they were just migrant workers. Some resettled in Mauritius and the Seychelles; some dispersed around the world. In total, more than 1,500 Chagossians were expelled and barred from returning.

The British government gave refugees who resettled in Mauritius a small amount of compensation, but the Chagossian people — representatives of whom say the compensation was insubstantial and poorly distributed — have been frustrated in their quest to return home. The British High Court ruled in 2000 that they could do so, but the government ordered the ruling overturned and ultimately beat the subsequent challenges.

The Chagossians tried taking their case to the European Court of Human Rights, but failed on jurisdictional grounds. Right now they have no one left to appeal to. And cables leaked via Wikileaks showed that the U.K.’s recent establishment of a marine nature reserve around the Chagos archipelago was at least partly intended to make it harder for the Chagossians to ever return home.

The .io deal

The rights for selling .io domains are held by a British company called Internet Computer Bureau (ICB), which also holds the rights to sales of .ac and .sh domains — indicating the South Atlantic islands of Ascension and Saint Helena respectively — and others. The .io domains each cost £60 ($102) before taxes, or twice that if you’re outside the EU.

The British government granted these rights to ICB chief Paul Kane back in the 1990s. ICB gets to run .io “more or less indefinitely, unless we make a technical mistake,” Kane told me. (ICB has so far run a stable .io namespace. It should be noted that Kane is a respected veteran of the infrastructure scene, and has been entrusted by ICANN with one of the 7 so-called “keys to the internet”.)

Kane would not disclose the number of .io domains that are sold each year, nor how much of the revenue go to the government. However, he said a fixed amount per domain goes to the “Crown bank”, with the rest being reinvested in the Domain Name System (DNS) services he operates, such as CommunityDNS. “We are a for-profit company that has elected to make sure that the monies received go into infrastructure investment,” he said.

As for the money going to the British state, “profits are distributed to the authorities for them to operate services as they see fit,” Kane explained. “Each of the overseas territories has an account and the funds are deposited there because obviously the territories have expenses that they incur and it’s offsetting that.”

In other words, a cut from the sale of every .io domain goes to the British government for the administration of a territory whose original inhabitants should arguably be getting that money, and whose only current inhabitants are 5,000 U.S. troops and spooks, their civilian contractors, and a handful of British personnel who are there for policing and customs purposes.

“Robbed”

When I approached representatives of the Chagossian community, they said they had been unaware that domains associated with their homeland were being sold for profit. Sabrina Jean, the chair of the U.K. Chagos Support Association, said in a statement:

“I am afraid that this is another example of the Chagossian people being robbed — when there were tuna fishing licences for sale the exiled Chagossians saw none of the profits, nor any of the tourist fees, nor of course the billions of pounds of rent paid by the U.S. military for leasing our homeland.”

That sentiment was shared by Roch Evenor and Bernadette Dugasse of the Chagos Seychelles Committee U.K.:

“While our community continue their lives in exile, enduring so much poverty and hardship, it greatly saddens us to hear of yet another example of how we are having taken from us what is rightfully ours.”

The U.S. lease is up for renewal later this year and Mauritius is trying to lay claim to the Chagos Islands. Earlier this year the U.K. government launched a survey to see if resettlement is feasible. A previous government study concluded that resettlement would be too costly for the British taxpayer.

Jean said her group would raise the .io matter with the Foreign Office and with those conducting the survey. I have asked the Foreign Office to explain how much it receives from .io domain sales and how those funds are used, but have not yet received an explanation.

Mixed startup reaction

I asked a few founders of “.io” startups whether they knew of the Chagossian association, and if it changed their view of the domain.

“That was kind of shocking – I had no idea, and of course it feels wrong,” Hampus Jakobsson, the founder of sales reporting startup Brisk.io, responded. “The problem is that there are, as you know, an issue with availability of good domains. I will think twice before buying a dot io, but that means it will be harder for me to find addresses.”

Thomas Schranz, founder of project management startup Blossom.io, concurred: “It does indeed change my perception of the .io domain in that I now see it as politically more nuanced/slightly problematic to choose it over a ‘neutral’ domain like .com or .net or .org or the upcoming new top-level domains.”

However, some startup founders don’t see the association with Chagossian history as a perception-changer.

“Nowadays, a lot of TLDs are used without any relation to the original country, such as .ly, .io, .me,” Jens Segers, founder of marketing tech firm Auki.io said. Another, Seats.io CEO Ben Verbeken, said: “To us, the .io domain is not a geographical indication, but we took it because it refers to ‘input-output’. And our customers (mostly tech savvy people) understand it like so.”

Oliver Gajek, co-founder of email security startup Whiteout.io, said he was uncertain how to feel about a situation that results in DNS infrastructure investment but that might also be “helping to prolong the Diego Garcia human rights violation.”

“I bet that, if done properly, a social media awareness campaign with a call-to-action for .io domain holders and their users to donate to a relevant charity would get some traction,” Gajek suggested.

There is another remote possibility — Mauritius might win its sovereignty dispute with the U.K. over the Chagos Islands. If that happens, the ownership of .io rights would probably be up in the air.

For now, though, the U.K. reaps the rewards of a hot top-level domain, and the Chagossians get nothing.

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