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Who's the master of a .ly domain?

What's a two-letter word for "uncertain foundation for an Internet service"?

If you've been following tech news lately, you can guess the answer: ".ly," the two-letter country code for Libya that provides the bit.ly address-shortening service with its catchy moniker.

As my colleague Melissa Bell noted Wednesday, Libya's domain registry deleted the VB.ly domain late last month.

VB.ly's issue was apparently its use to point people to not-safe-for-work, "sex positive" content (something bit.ly's terms of service prohibit). But the owners of the site -- San Francisco writer Violet Blue and Web consultant Ben Metcalfe -- didn't get any warning, as they wrote in separate blog posts. Blue suggested that anybody with a .ly domain "should be on high alert," while Metcalfe wrote that the .ly address "should be considered unsafe."

Republican Mitt Romney took that advice, changing his mitt.ly shortener to mi.tt.

This morning, Libya's domain registry posted its own response, saying that VB.ly was different from general-purpose shorteners such as bit.ly:

In reference to the vb.ly incident: the domain's purpose (proclaimed by its registrants themselves) was to serve as a 'sex friendly URL shortener', mainly for adult uses. This means that vb.ly had a policy different than the other URL shorteners, not using filters and encouraging the use of this service for creating links to adult sites and other "NSFW" links, thus placing vb.ly by definition in the porn/adult site category.

The statement went on to claim that vb.ly's management was "contacted on numerous occasions to investigate these concerns." Metcalfe rejected that description in a follow-up post.

What to make of all this?

First, I think you need to choose your business partners carefully. In a post on her own site (the ads are NSFW unless your office is a lot zestier than mine, so I'll link to Google's text-only cache), Blue wrote that she picked a .ly domain because she and Metcalfe couldn't find anything in the the domain registry's rules banning their proposed use.

Sure. But we're talking about Libya. This country may have ended state-sponsored terrorism, but it continues to exhibit a miserable human-rights record; its dictatorial leader Moammar Gaddafi is at best a public nuisance and at worse an outright nutcase. The country's formal name alone -- "Great Socialist People's Libyan Arab Jamahiriya" -- should warn you that you're not exactly operating in a land of free-wheeling capitalism.

Picking a .ly domain to share links to dissident views of any sort seems only a little less ill-advised than parking a feminist site at Saudi Arabia's .sa domain.

Second, if you do make a business decision to use a .ly domain, you need to communicate with your users about where you stand. That's where I have to fault bit.ly. The New York firm (which The Post uses to provide wapo.st shortcut links) has yet to speak about this issue. Spokesman Andrew Cohen declined to comment yesterday, and its blog doesn't have anything, either.

Today would be a good day for bit.ly to explain why it thinks its business and its users' links remain safe -- and to say whether it has a backup plan.

By Rob Pegoraro  | October 8, 2010; 4:00 PM ET
Categories:  Digital culture, Policy and politics, The Web  
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