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UN ruling may put .io domains at risk

Kevin Murphy, February 25, 2019, Domain Policy

The future of .io domains may have been cast into doubt, following a ruling from the UN’s highest court.

The International Court of Justice this afternoon ruled (pdf) by a 13-1 majority that “the United Kingdom is under an obligation to bring to an end its administration of the Chagos Archipelago as rapidly as possible”.

The Chagos Archipelago is a cluster of islands that the UK calls the British Indian Ocean Territory.

It was originally part of Mauritius, but was retained by the UK shortly before Mauritius gained independence in 1968, so a strategic US military base could be built on Diego Garcia, one of the islands.

The native Chagossians were all forcibly relocated to Mauritius and the Seychelles over the next several years. Today, most everyone who lives there are British or American military.

But the ICJ ruled today, after decades of Mauritian outrage, that “the process of decolonization of Mauritius was not lawfully completed when that country acceded to independence in 1968, following the separation of the Chagos Archipelago”.

So BIOT, if the UK government follows the ruling, may cease to exist in the not-too-distant future.

BIOT’s ccTLD is .io, which has become popular with tech startups over the last few years and has over 270,000 domains.

It’s run by London-based Internet Computer Bureau Ltd, which Afilias bought for $70 million almost two years ago.

Could it soon become a ccTLD without a territory, leaving it open to retirement and removal from the DNS root?

It’s not impossible, but I’ll freely admit that I’m getting into heavy, early speculation here.

There are a lot of moving parts to consider, and at time of writing the UK government has not even stated how it will respond to the non-binding ICJ ruling.

Should the UK abide by the ruling and wind down BIOT, its IO reservation on the ISO 3166-1 alpha-2 list could then be removed by the International Standards Organisation.

That would mean .io no longer fits the ICANN criteria for being a ccTLD, leaving it subject to forced retirement.

Retired TLDs are removed from the DNS root, meaning all the second-level domains under them stop working, obviously.

It’s not entirely clear how this would happen. ICANN’s Country Code Names Supporting Organization has not finished work on its policy for the retirement of ccTLDs.

TLDs are certainly not retired overnight, without the chance of an orderly winding-down.

Judging by the current state of ccNSO discussions, it appears that ccTLDs could in future be retired with or without the consent of their registry, with a five-to-10-year clock starting from the string’s removal from the ISO 3166-1 list.

Under existing ICANN procedures, I’m aware of at least two ccTLDs that have been retired in recent years.

Timor-Leste was given .tl a few years after it rebranded from Portuguese Timor, and .tp was removed from the DNS a decade later. It took five years for .an to be retired after the Netherlands Antilles’ split into several distinct territories in 2010.

But there are also weird hangers-on, such as the Soviet Union’s .su, which has an “exceptional reservation” on the ISO list and is still active (and inexplicably popular) as a ccTLD.

As I say, I’m in heavy speculative territory when it comes to .io, but it strikes me that not many registrants will consider when buying their names that the territory their TLD represents may one day simple poof out of existence at the stroke of a pen.

Afilias declined to comment for this article.