If Libya Falls, What Happens to All Those Twitter bit.ly Links?

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Editor’s Note: The following is a guest post by Jerry Brito, a policy wonk and web developer based in Washington, D.C.

If you’re a serious or even occasional twitterer, you may have wondered what the “.ly” at the end of those shortened bit.ly URLs stand for. Well, the answer is Libya. Like “.uk” for United Kingdom or “.jp” for Japan, .ly is a country code top-level domain that serves as an alternative to “generic” top-level domains such as “.com” or “.net”. So now that Libya is further slipping into chaos, an obvious question arises: what happens to all those shortened links?

Two scenarios: one good, and one pretty bad.

Let’s do the good one first. If the Libyan government shuts down the Internet for the country, as Egypt did earlier this month, it will likely have no immediate effect on users’ ability to access .ly links. The reason is that most of the servers that resolve .ly URLs are located outside of Libya. According to  former ICANN board member Michael Palage, “administrators of those names servers are likely to take steps to ensure continued resolution.” Admins of Egypt’s .eg name servers took just such steps last month.

“For .ly domains to be unresolvable the five .ly root servers that are authoritative *all* have to be offline, or responding with empty responses,” said bit.ly CEO John Borthwick. “Of the five root nameservers for the .ly TLD: two are based in Oregon, one is in the Netherlands and two are in Libya.”

Those servers in Oregon and Europe will continue to let users get to .ly addresses as normal even if the Libyan servers are cut off. The more profound question, however, is what influence could a potential new Libyan government have over the domains?

As it turns out, a lot. Unlike generic top-level domains (.com, .net, .org, etc.) that are controlled by independent nonprofit organizations, country codes are generally controlled by national governments. This means the government can boot off any registered domain name it wishes. Last year, the Libyan government seized the domain name vb.ly, which was a link shortening service run by sex blogger Violet Blue.

While the private organizations that run generic top-level domains respect freedom of speech, state-controlled top-level domains often impose restrictions. Libyan registry policy prohibits .ly domains to be obscene, indecent, or sexual in nature, nor can they be “insulting of religion or politics, or be related to gambling and lottery industry or be contrary to Libyan law or Islamic morality.” A new government could place even more stringent restrictions on the .ly domain — and in so doing create headaches not only for the bit.ly and Twitter (which uses bit.ly as its default link-shortening service), but also for sites such as Trunk.ly, Letter.ly, Embed.ly, Graphic.ly and many others that make use of the Libya top-level domain.

Jerry Brito is a contributor to TIME. Find him on Twitter at @jerrybrito. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

More on Time.com:

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World Web War I: Why Egypt’s Digital Uprising is Different