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“Crimes against humanity” claims against Afilias

Kevin Murphy, August 4, 2021, Domain Registries

Donuts subsidiary Afilias has been accused of participating in “crimes against humanity” and imperialist “apartheid”, due to its management of the contested .io ccTLD.

A London-based lawyer has filed a complaint with the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, seeking either the redelegation of .io or a big chunk of its profits.

The complaint was filed on behalf of Crypto Currency Resolution Trust (CCRT), representing people allegedly ripped off by cryptocurrency scams on .io domains, and the Chagos Refugees Group UK (CRG UK).

The latter group represents some of the people forcibly deported from the Chagos Islands in the 1970s, when the British government evicted the entire native population to make way for a US military base on Diego Garcia, the largest island.

The islands were renamed the British Indian Ocean Territory and, in the early days of the DNS, became eligible for the ccTLD .io

The TLD was delegated by IANA to Paul Kane’s London-based outfit Internet Computer Bureau in 1997, in the pre-ICANN days when such decisions were made without very much oversight.

ICB was quietly bought by Afilias for $70 million in 2017, as I broke the following year.

In 2019, the International Court of Justice ruled that the UK’s continued administration of BIOT is unlawful, and that the territory should be returned to the Chagossians, but the current Conservative UK government has shown no indication that it plans to abide by that ruling.

The lawyer for the Chagossians, Jonathan Levy, now claims in his OECD complaint that for Afilias to continue to run .io — which he reckons brings in over €10 million a year — amounts to a human rights abuse in violation of OECD guidelines.

The complaint states:

The British military occupation of the Chagos Archipelago has been severe and resulted in the Chagossians wandering the globe as a displaced people deported from their homeland in a forcible exile reminiscent of British tactics also used on Irish home rule advocates in the 19th Century. It is just simply an outrage that an Irish multinational company is deliberately complicit in crimes against humanity and apartheid on behalf of one of last vestiges of British imperialism and apartheid.

While Levy recognizes on his blog that Afilias has been acquired by US-based Donuts, only Afilias and its subsidiaries in the UK and Ireland are named as respondents.

In a second prong of the attack, Levy claims that Afilias is somehow complicit in cryptocurrency frauds carried out using .io domains.

Blaming a registry for the actions of its registrants is pretty tenuous. Imagine if Verisign got blamed for every nefarious action carried out with a .com domain — there would not be enough lawyers in the world to handle that workload.

But Levy reckons .io is a special case because BIOT lacks law enforcement and because Afilias promotes .io as the best TLD for tech companies “knowing full well” it is often used for crypto fraud. The complaint reads:

Complaina[n]ts submit that while other general purpose domains like GLTD .com may have as much or even more crypto fraud, ccTLD .io is an exception because it represents a political entity with no permanent population and no companies law and no law enforcement. Consequently, unlike ccTLD .com or .net where US authorities may seize websites; .io criminals have little to fear as BIOT has no civil police force nor financial intelligence unit. ICB has promoted ccTLD .io to the tech community knowing full well it will be misused by a significant criminal element specializing in crypto assets.

This still feels pretty tenuous to me. You cannot evade the long arm of the law simply by registering on offshore domain.

Still, Levy’s asking for restitution in the form of a percentage of the ICB acquisition price, ongoing and backdated royalties from the sale of .io domains and, failing that, redelegation of the ccTLD to the Chagossian people.

While I think the notion of Donuts/Afilias actively abusing human rights is pretty weak, there’s no denying it’s the beneficiary of an historical wrong. Imagine how many credibility points it could earn by voluntarily negotiating a profit-share with the displaced Chagossians.

Future of .io domains has become party-political issue in the UK

The future of the Chagos Islands and therefore the longevity of .io domain names may well depend on which party holds the reins of power in the UK.

The current Conservative government under Theresa May has this month rejected an international court ruling calling for the British Indian Ocean Territory — currently the official name of the archipelago — to be wound down and the lands returned to the exiled Chagossians.

But the leader of the official opposition, Jeremy Corbyn, has reportedly slammed the government’s position and said Labour is “committed to respecting the advisory opinion in full, so as to ensure that Chagossians are able to return to their homes”.

In February, the International Court of Justice ruled that the UK had kept control of the islands unlawfully when Mauritius, which had the prior claim, gained its independence in 1968.

The couple thousand natives were kicked out of the country a few years later to make way for a US naval base, and have been living in Mauritius and the Seychelles with no ability to return ever since.

Were the UK to follow the ICJ ruling, it would quite possibly mean the end of BIOT as the name of the islands and therefore the demise of its two-letter country code, IO, and therefore the eventual retirement of the popular .io domain name.

.io, which is believed to have around 270,000 domains, is run by London-based Internet Computer Bureau Ltd, which Afilias bought for $70 million two years ago.

It’s popular with tech startups as a kind of domain hack for “input/output”.

Now that the UK government has officially come out against the ICJ ruling, and Labour has supported it, it appears the future of the Chagossians and .io registrants alike will depend rather on who is occupying 10 Downing Street in future.

Start-ups protest “the dark side of .io”

Kevin Murphy, March 17, 2015, Domain Registries

Two technology start-up companies that use .io domain name are to campaign on behalf of the exiled natives of the islands represented by the ccTLD.

As you’re no doubt aware, in recent years .io became a popular TLD among young tech firms squeezed out of .com by the lack of decent available names.

It could be understood to mean “input/output”, but the ccTLD actually represents the British Indian Ocean Territory, an archipelago in the Indian Ocean with a storied past.

It’s managed by UK-based Internet Computer Bureau, which runs several obscure overseas ccTLDs.

Over the last year or so, there’s been increasing awareness among .io registrants of BIOT’s recent history, which isn’t great.

The biggest island in the territory is Diego Garcia. In the 1960s, about 1,800 people — known as Chagossians — lived there.

But they were all forced to leave by the UK government in the early 1970s as part of a move to lease essentially the entire island to the US military.

This was at the height of the Cold War, when the US believed the islands were strategically important.

According to the UK Chagos Support Association, the exile was carried out covertly and many of those kicked off the islands were forced to live in “utmost poverty” in nearby Mauritius.

Now, Diego Garcia is populated by about 3,000 military personnel, mostly Americans, who staff the air and naval bases that were established following the Chagossians’ exile.

But the US lease is due to expire next year, so those backing the Chagossian cause reckon they’ve got an unprecedented opportunity to get the UK government to let them return.

You can read about the campaign here.

How does this all relate to domain names?

Two .io-using start-ups — Seats.io and BigBoards.io — said late last week that they have pledged their support to the cause.

In a press release, Seats.io’s “Chief Everything Officer” Ben Verbeken said the company will soon launch a web site at thedarksideof.io, “where companies can pledge to match the cost of registering their .io domain name with a donation to a Chagossian group or charity.”

.io names currently cost about $100 for the first year and about $50 a year thereafter.

Verbeken said: “When we learned about the Chagossian people’s story, we had two choices. We could give up our domain name and change the name of our business. But we would just be running away from the problem. So we decided to accept our social responsibility and actually help the Chagossian people a bit.”

The domain thedarksideof.io currently leads to a placeholder.

You can read more of the political back-story at The Guardian