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Niue’s two-decade fight for two letters on the internet

                                Niue Prime Minister Dalton Tagelagi speaks during a plenary session at the COP28 U.N. Climate Summit on Dec. 2 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.
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Niue Prime Minister Dalton Tagelagi speaks during a plenary session at the COP28 U.N. Climate Summit on Dec. 2 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

The South Pacific island of Niue is one the most remote places in the world. Its closest neighbors, Tonga and American Samoa, are hundreds of miles away. The advent of the internet promised, in a small way, to make Niue and its 2,000 or so residents more connected to the rest of the world.

In the late 1990s, an American businessperson offered to hook up the island to the internet. All he wanted in exchange was the right to control the .nu suffix that Niue was assigned for its web addresses. The domain did not seem as lucrative as .tv — which was slotted to Tuvalu, another South Pacific nation — and the leaders of Niue (pronounced New-ay) signed off on the deal. But the two sides were soon at odds.

Now, after more than two decades of back and forth, the disagreement is finally nearing a resolution in a court of law. Disputes over domain names were not uncommon during the internet’s infancy, but experts are hard pressed to recall one that has lasted this long.

It turned out that .nu was, in fact, very valuable. “Nu” means now in Swedish, Danish and Dutch, and thousands of Scandinavians registered websites with that suffix, creating a steady business for Niue’s business partner, Bill Semich.

Niue, an oval coral island of about 100 square miles, about the size of Lincoln, Nebraska, felt it had been cheated out of a reliable stream of cash that would have helped it reduce its reliance on tourism and foreign aid. It had turned to unorthodox sources of income before, selling stamps and coins to collectors. It had also rented out its international dialing code, until Niue’s deeply Christian residents started being awakened at midnight by wayward phone sex calls from Japan.

Niue canceled the deal with Semich in 2000 and has been attempting to reclaim .nu — which is now operated by the Swedish Internet Foundation, a nonprofit — ever since. It is seeking about $30 million in damages from the foundation, an amount that could be transformative for a tiny island that was recognized by the United States as a sovereign state only in 2022. The dispute has landed in the Swedish courts, and a judge in Stockholm began hearing Niue’s arguments last week. A ruling is expected in the coming days.

“This is a unique, complex, and somewhat strange case,” said David Taylor, an intellectual property and domain name expert at the law firm Hogan Lovells, adding that this made it extremely difficult to predict the outcome of the case.

For the leader of Niue, it is a fight for self-determination. Niue is self-governing but depends heavily on New Zealand, and the two are in a political relationship known as free association.

“We are victims of digital colonialism,” Prime Minister Dalton Tagelagi of Niue said over a crackling video link from his office in the capital of Alofi. “This domain, the .nu, recognizes Niue as a sovereign country. This is how important it is to our identity.”

Critics question that assessment, as there is formally no such thing as sovereignty in cyberspace, only administrative zones that divide the web into domains like .nu and, for instance, the .nz suffix assigned to New Zealand.

Winning the case could help ensure the long-term survival of Niue, Tagelagi said. The island’s population is now about one-third of what it was in the 1960s, and the empty homes that dot the island are a reminder of the people who left for better economic opportunities. A victory could help fund its bid to join the United Nations, similar to how Tuvalu obtained U.N. membership after monetizing .tv.

If Niue manages to get .nu back, it could bring in up to $2 million in revenue a year, according to Par Brumark, a domain name expert who is acting on Niue’s behalf in the Swedish case.

Semich has repeatedly denied Niue’s claims of wrongdoing. In 2013, his company, Internet Users Society Niue, struck a deal to hand over the operation of .nu to the Swedish Internet Foundation, which runs Sweden’s .se domain. Niue moved to sue. A yearslong procedural battle that went all the way to Sweden’s Supreme Court followed until its legal system decided to hear Niue’s case.

Jannike Tilla, a vice president of the foundation, rejected Niue’s claims against it and said that it was a subcontractor for IUSN. She added: “The domain is highly relevant for Swedish users, not least for many critical societal institutions.”

Some Swedish newspapers, for instance, have .nu in their web addresses. Websites currently using the domain are not expected to face any changes even if Niue wins its case.

IUSN directed questions to Emani Lui, a newly elected member of Niue’s Parliament. Lui runs the only private internet provider on Niue, previously worked with IUSN and is the son of the premier who signed the original deal with Semich. He said that the dispute over .nu had become so bitter that successive governments had lost sight of other options Niue had.

“We would have had the best in the Pacific, probably one of the best communications systems in the world” if Niue had seen eye-to-eye with IUSN, he said. “It wasn’t taken up. It was more like: We want the cash.”

Tagelagi rejected that notion.

“It is the morality. Every nation, regardless of size, should be treated fairly and equally,” he said. “We are sometimes overlooked for being a small island out there in the big blue. But you can only be patient for so long.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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