On the same day this week that Spanish authorities stormed the offices of the Catalan regional government, detaining at least 14 people, a less-noticed raid took place.
The puntCAT foundation, which oversees the registry of websites with the “.cat” domain, tweeted on Sept. 20 that its offices had also been raided and that one of its senior executives had been arrested.
An arrest. Cats. The internet. Naturally, we were curious.
Cats, of course, have a storied history on the internet. Cat videos were among the first clips to go viral on YouTube. BuzzFeed once told a reporter that cat posts generated 3.5 times more traffic than the average post.
There flourished internet cats that wanted cheeseburgers, internet cats that were grumpy, internet cats that played keyboards, and an internet cat with an enviable life of the mind.
In 2013, a cat food company, Friskies, promulgated a rumor that 15 percent of all internet traffic was cat-related. That this was even believable speaks to cats’ status as rulers of the digital jungle.
“At this point I’d argue cats are famous because cats are famous, a self-fulfilling prophecy that keeps perpetuating itself,” said Jason Eppink, a curator at the Museum of the Moving Image who organized an exhibit about cats online in 2015.
Given the web’s rich cat history, you’d think that domain names ending in .cat would be another online feline gold mine. But that has not been the case, apart from some exceptions like a site for the famously delightful or perhaps annoying meme, Nyan Cat.
Almost all sites with the .cat suffix belong to the Catalan-speaking community thanks to the efforts of the puntCAT (“dot-cat” in Catalan), the foundation approved in 2005 to manage the domain’s registry by the global Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers. That made it one of the first domains to explicitly refer to a language and culture, paving the way for others, when it first appeared in 2006.
According to a May news release, there are about 113,000 .cat domains registered, and a spokesman for the foundation told The Washington Post in 2015 that the group audits such sites to ensure that they are using Catalan.
And that’s where Spanish politics come in.
Catalan is spoken in Catalonia, the Spanish region that includes Barcelona and where political leaders have been pushing for years to secede from the rest of Spain. Madrid has declared that the secession effort violates the country’s constitution, and have cracked down on attempts to hold a referendum on secession on Oct. 1.
In a letter to ICANN, the foundation said that Spanish authorities had asked it to “block all .cat domain names that may contain any kind of information about the forthcoming independence referendum.”
“We are being requested to censor content and suppress freedom of speech,” the organization added.
The internet naming corporation said, “We are aware of the reports about Fundacio PuntCAT, the registry operator for .cat, and we continue to monitor the situation.”
Thus it is that an internet obsession is butting up against a very serious separatist movement that has roiled an entire country.
As it turns out, the Catalans could not resist the lure of a good online cat gag. According to the foundation’s website, the first .cat website registered was tan.cat, a “little joke” of the engineers.
Of course, as Eppink pointed out, “An affiliation with cats online first requires that cats be part of that culture.” And in Catalan, tan.cat does not mean, well, tan cat. Tancat is the Catalan word for “closed.”