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

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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 —, and 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.


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, 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, 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 said. Another, 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, 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.

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

  1. Jesus Christ. In light of recent global activity by Americans I would think its a bit rich for you to preach to the british about its colonial past. Perhaps, once your national conscience is clear, then you can start to preach.

  2. Gweirydd

    Are you aware that there’s a similar story in Wales, where the grassroots campaign for the .wales (and .cymru – in Welsh) domains was hijacked, and control of these domains handed over to the English company Nominet?

  3. David Vine

    Thank you for this wonderful and eye-opening piece! There are several ways people can support the Chagossians and their struggle for justice, including by supporting the groups mentioned in this article as well as the Chagos Refugees Group (the largest organization representing Chagossians in Mauritius) and the UK Chagos Support Association.

    Between now and the end of the World Cup, the Let Us Return campaign is raising money to support the Chagossians. Half the funds raised will go to the Chagos Islands football (soccer) team that plays to raise awareness for the Chagossians’ struggle and half will go to the Chagos Refugees Group to support Chagossians in exile and their struggle to return. Visit to learn more and donate. Thanks, David Vine

  4. Andrew Boardman

    A great article, David. I wish more people would focus on TLDs and the relationship between owners, governments and human rights. Still have yet to see a decent piece about the .ly TLD.

  5. It’s clever, but I think somewhat unconvincing, journalism to tie these stories together.

    Money goes to the territories (minus a cut), but the people who were brought there against their will originally, and who no longer live there, and were compensated for leaving, feel they should benefit from a domain which is based on the name they didn’t choose for the islands which came into force after they left, and which presumably they’d get rid of if they went back?

    Well, of course, any group with an existing grudge — and I’m not really saying they shouldn’t have one for their displacement — but if a journalist approaches them with a new idea and says, “Don’t you think you should get more money?”, they’re hardly likely to say no…

  6. punkware

    What’s the time limit for outrage? Because I don’t see any article about Native Americans not getting a cut of the .US domain names.

  7. macca

    How many times can you mention British/UK in a article.

    True I think that all white Americans should leave American and allow the true Americans there land back. Plus at the same time any profits from .com given to true Americans.

    • Stuart Clarke-Frisby

      Ben, I appreciate you expanding on your position, the quote attributed to you in the article made me very angry, and whilst I completely disagree with you on what the right thing to do is – I am glad you took the time to explain a bit further.

      To me, the only responsible action is in not associating yourself with the ethnic cleansing of the Chagos Islands. What does that mean in practise? Registering – and replacing with information on the human rights abuses of the British Government in relation to it’s actions in the ‘British Indian Ocean Territory’. Once the domain registration lapses, allowing it to return to the British Government and thus ending your link to one of the most shameful acts of imperialism of the 20th century.

      Your support of Chagossian causes is laudable, but I feel like it’s more about you paying off some guilt than it is about genuinely supporting the Chagos cause. You cannot simultaneously line the pockets of the oppressor and the oppressed and be seen as anything other than opportunistic and amoral.

  8. Samuel Stokes

    News Flash: The island of Diego Garcia is very small and without frequent flights and cargo ships could not support any sizable population. Fresh water is a definite issue.

    The islands are difficult to get too by ship.

    So seriously, the money from *.io might be a good thing to share with the ex-inhabitants, I doubt if anyone would really want to live there. Getting money from the leaseholder might be a positive situation, but unless you have visited these islands you simply don’t know how stark, desolate and lonely they are. There is no current way the natives could make money as the distance from land is about as far as you can get and remain on the surface of the earth.

    These are atolls that are barely above sea level. Let’s get real. This myth that the islanders are harmed by relocation, they couldn’t survive on the islands without an NGO or rich nations supporting them.

  9. Robin Salih

    Good article and highlights an historic injustice, but really the money generated by these domains is meaningless in terms of UK government revenue.

  10. What a mess. I don’t think the any government or it’s people should be profiting from the sale of these domain names. This money should be donated to open source projects such as Mozilla and OpenSSL.

    • Stuart Logan

      Not sure about Mozilla but I agree entirely with your sentiment.

      Who owns .com, .net and .org? Why don’t other countries get multiple extensions like the US. The whole system – paying for it seems strange

  11. screwwordpressiwantmyownname

    So you yourself said they were brought to the islands as slaves by the French and set free by the British, but never at any point owned the land! What claim do they have? How are British the bad guys for ending slavery and paying for them to get back to civilization?

    • Since they were brought to the islands as slaves, their status as slaves was wrong, so they automatically became entitled to full citizenship rights on those islands, like African-Americans in the United States – or Koreans in Japan, who are being denied this right, but this denial is recognized as a human rights violation.

      Not only should they be able to go back to the islands they were brought to, not only should they now own the land, but Britain should pay for creating a sustainable economy there that will give them the same per-capita income, on average, as people in the United Kingdom itself. That is the appropriate way to make restitution for the crime of slavery.

      • Johnny

        Ummm the British should pay? Remember it was the French who enslaved these people in Africa and then transported them to the islands. The British then _freed_ them from slavery in 1835 shortly after the place become a British colony. If anyone needs to make restitution surely it is the French!

        • ♥

          You are completely right! Since the french did something wrong to these people, the british can treat them any way they want, and it wouldn’t be wrong, it would just make the french more awful. Righteo. Spot on!

  12. Jonathan Brewer

    Hi David, the .tv situation is not what it seems. Try to confirm they’re getting paid, and if so by whom. It might be an interesting story.

  13. Md. Tauseef Anwar

    Excellent article. Maybe people from should be notified about this. In order to raise awareness about pressurising the UK government to start resettlement. I just bought a .io domain for my new company, and now utterly confused as to what to do with it.

    Looks like the British and their friends have continued to be the terrorists, even much after the fall of their “empire”.

    • Shawn

      What makes you think their empire has fallen? With the “Crown” still in full presence and action, and with all the little islands and territories and big countries like Canada, and Australia under their control, I would say the British Empire is running at full steam …. it’s just not advertised as such. And for a good reason …. they don’t want to draw our attention to the fact that they’re still running an empire. Indeed they’re the aggressors, and terrorists, and god knows how much raping and pillaging they’ve done in the past 100 years …. more than all other empires of the past combines !!!!

  14. Adam Burton

    Excellent article David, thank you so much for investigating this.
    Anyone interested in learning more about the depopulation of the Chagos Islands and the perpetuation of that crime by the British government should watch John Pilger’s award winning documentary Stealing A Nation –

    I look forward to seeing what the reaction is to the article.
    Bye, Adam.