The tiny islands making millions from selling their internet domains

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Have you ever wanted to set up a website, but thought ‘.com’, ‘.co.uk’ or ‘.org’ is too common?

Chances are you aren’t alone. Millions every year opt for a slightly quirkier domain name for their website, perhaps ‘.me’, for example.

However, because domains like this belong to individual countries, this has created something of a lucrative trade in the sale of country code domains, with some lesser-known countries making millions off the sale of their codes.

Every year, UK domain registry Nominet publishes a map of the world scaled not to geography, but to the countries with the most registered domains.

Its map for 2019 contains some countries you might expect to be among the largest sellers such as China, Germany, the UK. But also included in the odd-looking map are some that you wouldn’t.

That giant landmass off the east coast of Japan, for example, is Tokelau. A territory of New Zealand 24 hours boat from Samoa, which comprises three coral atolls covering just four square miles in the South Pacific, it has an enormous 25.1million domains registered to its ‘.tk’ address.

This is the most in the world, pushing China into second place. 

This is likely due to the fact no expired domains are ever deleted, while users can register domains for free. 

Under free registration, users effectively rent the domain rather than own it, but you can get full rights by paying for a domain.

It’s unclear quite how much money the three atolls make each year from selling ‘.tk’ domains, though This is Money did ask, but by 2007 it had increased its GDP by more than 10 per cent through ‘.tk’ registrations.

However, it still has the smallest economy in the world.

But while it is the standout example of a place punching above its weight, plenty of other small countries have also taken advantage of popular domains, with some making millions of pounds from selling them.

From the South Pacific to the Caribbean sea, the 35 square mile island of Anguilla is possibly one of the lesser-known names, with travellers likelier to opt for Barbados, Jamaica or The Bahamas.

However, This is Money’s Lee Boyce visited the island in 2017, before it was battered by Hurricane Irma, and said ‘you really do feel like you’ve washed up on isolated paradise’.

More recently, celebrities such as Adele and Harry Styles holidayed on the British Overseas Territory, while it is rumoured to be a favourite of famous investor Warren Buffett. 

But as well as the beaches, sand and sun, one of its biggest charms is its ‘.ai’, domain, popular among tech start-ups thanks to AI also standing for artificial intelligence. 

According to the latest official records, it made $2.9million in 2018 from domain registrations, but the man in charge of the registry, Vincent Cate, told This is Money he thought revenue was up around another third in 2019.

This would be almost $4million, or nearly £3million.

The American expat said the ‘.ai’ registering: ‘Has been growing fast for a long time but is just recently big enough to show up as an item on the government budget. The last seven years it has really grown fast.

‘Some websites like “Gab.ai”, “X.ai”, “API.ai” started using it and then lots of people would see those domains both on the Internet and on buildings next to busy freeways in California.

‘The more people that saw existing “.ai” domains the more thought it could be nice to buy their own. The more people using it, the more people see it, the more people see it, the more people use it. So it snowballs or goes viral.’

Even a hurricane wasn’t enough to check the growth in sales.

‘It is a great source of revenue as we are getting money from all over the world, not just our tiny island’, Vincent said. ‘Since most people renew their domains again and again, it is a very reliable income.’

‘When Hurricane Irma hurt our tourism revenue it did nothing to slow domain sales.’

Though likely a bit colder than a Caribbean Island, the domain name of the Channel Island of Guernsey is also a hot property.

Registrations for the British crown dependency’s ‘.gg.’ domain grew 107 per cent between 2018 and 2019, with 15,274 registered websites, according to Nominet.

This is once again due to the internet, with ‘gg’ being a popular phrase in online gaming, a common abbreviation of ‘good game’.

Nominet said: ‘video game and esports websites recognise the “gg” and therefore view the domain as a great marketing tool.’

This is Money asked the Guernsey government for any insight into how much revenue it derives from domain registrations, but sadly didn’t receive any response.

Though it has yet to the turn the South Pacific into the new Silicon Valley, Tokelau’s fellow island nation Tuvalu is also cashing in on the rush for unusual domains, thanks to ‘.tv’.

And though the 9-island chain has a population of just 11,000, it receives a nearly £4million a year windfall, largely thanks to one of the largest companies in the world.

It can cost around £77.35 to register a domain, while Tuvalu has a contract with the American domain registry company Verisign.

The most notable customer of Tuvalu is Amazon, which bought the online video game streaming site ‘Twitch.tv’ for $970million in 2014. As of May 2018, Twitch had 27,000 channels, 2.2million broadcasters and 15million daily active users.

And though other streaming services like Netflix or Hulu use ‘.com’ rather than ‘.tv’, entering something like ‘Netflix.tv’ or ‘Hulu.tv’ will still redirect you to those websites.

According to The Washington Post, the contract with Verisign is enough to earn Tuvalu one-twelfth of its Gross National Income, just through licensing its ‘.tv’ domain. And that could increase even further, with Tuvalu’s contract with Verisign up for renewal in 2021.

Finally, two coral atolls and 27 islands spanning 5.4 square miles in the Indian Ocean which are a 22 hour flight from the Indonesian capital of Jakarta have given their name to cricket clubs, cycling clubs and organised religion.

The Cocos (Keeling) Islands, an Australian territory, have the domain name ‘.cc’, which like Tuvalu is also administered through Verisign. 

According to Nominet, it has almost 667,000 registrations – 180,000 more than Tuvalu.

Many Christian churches and organisations use the domain, for fairly obvious reasons, as do cycling and cricket clubs.

Reading cycling club, for example, use ‘.cc’, while one of the biggest name users is cycling sportwear seller Rapha, the web address for which is ‘Rapha.cc’.

If you were able to take your cycling gear, whether it was bought from Rapha or not, on the plane from Jakarta to the airport on its West Island, it’d be just over 12km if you wanted to cycle from one end to the other.

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