Bitly is a service that shortens links. Got a long weird URL like https://feedly.com/j/collection/content/user/417c116754b-81d4-4d15-9ac6-0816e92e0aa1/category/global.all? Pop it into bit.ly and you get a nice short url like https://bit.ly/3cnkrkQ, perfect for some compact space like Twitter.
But there’s something strange about Bitly. Is it their pufferfish logo? No that’s a bit weird but kinda cute. Is it the fact that when you change one letter in a bit.ly URL, you’re likely to land at some random site? No, that’s just fun.
No, the mysterious part about Bitly is their shortening domain itself: bit.ly. What does this .ly signify? After all, you can’t just slap any two letter combo at the end of domain, it has to be created for some purpose. Well, it’s a country code top level domain, like many popular domains such as .co (Columbia), .io (British Indian Ocean Territory) and .fm (Federated States of Micronesia).1 But where does .ly hail from? Libya of course. And this is where Bitly gets into a tricky situation.
You see, these country code top level domains can be subject to arbitrary restrictions imposed by the country associated with them.2 For instance, .ly “domain names must not contain obscene, scandalous, indecent, or contrary to Libyan law or Islamic morality words, phrases nor abbreviations”.3 Although this regulation seems to apply only to the domain name itself, it seems to have been extended to the content of the websites themselves. For instance, in 2010 vb.ly the “Internet’s first and only sex-positive URL shortener” was deleted because “Pornography and adult material aren’t allowed under Libyan Law”.4 Thus, the Libyan government has ultimate authority over this process and is not friendly to free speech nor is it stable (Libya has been embroiled in a civil war since 2014 and another civil war occurred in 2011 as part of the Arab Spring).
Now you may be thinking, Bitly must be more safe that vb.ly was, right? After all vb.ly was strongly associated with content the Libyan government was not a fan of, whereas bit.ly is much more generic. However, in 2010, after bit.ly was registered, a new regulation went into effect requiring all new .ly domain registrations under 4 characters have a local presence in Libya.5 Existing domains like bit.ly were grandfathered in and allowed to remain, as they have for the past 10 years.
Given that bit.ly has remained untouched for the last 10 years, their domain seems relatively safe. However, it is certainly not completely safe and, at any point, the Libyan government could involve Bitly in court proceedings or outright delete their domain; this is especially precarious given the unstable nature of the Libyan government. For most companies, this loss of domain would be a real concern with negative impacts. Even if they avoid .ly domains, their domain is never completely secure. For instance, the U.S government has seized domains of all kinds, including .com domains, although for more narrow reasons like criminal activity. However, for most sites this would not be catastrophic. For instance, if Youtube suddenly lost youtube.com, people who still wanted to use it would do a quick Google search, learn that Youtube has moved to newtube.com, and move on. Sure, a major disruption that causes frustration and some loss of users, but not the end of the company.
However, for bit.ly, a loss of domain would be absolutely catastrophic. The core of their product consists of bit.ly links. If these links were suddenly broken, countless links on the internet would break and their reputation would be immensely tarred, perhaps irreparably. Bitly spokespeople have said that the threat is not serious and that they have backup domains like Bitly.com.6 Of course, such backup domains would not help the many existing bit.ly links. Thus, to me it seems like an unwise move to start a link shortener company with an .ly domain. Granted, the domain was registered before Libya’s civil wars began, but Gaddafi was in power then and his government was an oppressive censor. At this point, bit.ly is way too heavily invested in its domain to switch, but if you’re thinking of purchasing a domain, use extreme caution with .ly or other country code domains.
What do you think? Is a worry about country code domains legitimate, or, am I being overly paranoid? Let me know in the comments.
Note: This post was originally written as a script for narrating a Youtube video, hence its different style from my other posts.
As far as I can tell ICANN, the international body that handles domains, has said little about these restrictions. In general, they defer to governments stating that they are “not a governmental or law enforcement agency and [have] no law enforcement authority” and that they “comply with the court order and require its contracted parties to do the same”: https://www.icann.org/resources/pages/faqs-84-2012-02-25-en#42↩
I’m not sure if these regulations were created by the company administering the .ly domains or the Libyan government. Regardless, they’re in force.↩
It seems that vb.ly did not itself host such content but simply provided a link shortening service to such content. Thus, the legality and details of this deletion seem a bit murky. It seems that the government took offense with an image on the landing page of the site: https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2010/oct/08/Bitly-libya↩