Top-level domains and nationalism

In 2010, Irina Shklovski and David M. Struthers wrote an excellent article on Kazakh national identity and its reflection through top-level domain name choices. The article is titled: Of States and Borders on the Internet: The Role of Domain Name Extensions in Expressions of Nationalism Online in Kazakhstan and the Oxford Internet Institute makes a PDF available.

The space on the internet is easily traversable and state boundaries in the form of domain extensions can be crossed with no more effort than a click of a mouse. Yet, what might such traversals of imagined state boundaries on the internet mean to the people doing the traversing? This question is especially relevant when considering people from Kazakhstan, a country where notions of statehood and nationalism are contested and are in the process of being renegotiated. Results presented here suggest that residents of Kazakhstan are acutely aware of national boundary traversals as they navigate the internet. The naming of a state-controlled space on the internet, through the use of ccTLDs, does in fact matter to the average user. Citizens of Kazakhstan often identified their activity on the internet as happening within or outside the space of the state to which they felt allegiance and attachment. We argue that naming matters for the creation of not only imagined communities online but also for individual expressions of nationalism on the internet.

Kazakhstan was previously part of the USSR.

There are several ways online spaces such as websites or other internet resources might signal their national affiliation. One such was is through the use of “country-code top-level domain names” (ccTLDs) that are in fact managed by an organization affiliated with the country in question that is the “designated manager” of second-level domain names (DNS) with the defined ccTLD (Postel 1994). The presence of a ccTLD often does not imply that the server that houses the page is in fact physically located on the territory of the country that the ccTLD denotes. However, symbolically, the webpage or an internet resource would display its national affiliation regardless of its actual physical location. We argue that the majority of internet users do not know and likely do not care where the resources they use online are physically located, but pay attention to the symbolic information embedded in the URLs as well as in the content they consume. In fact, prior research demonstrates that barring the physical locations of online resources, a direct analysis of links between sites based exclusively on their URLs indicated that most sites tend to link within a given ccTLD rather than across ccTLDs (Halavais 2000).

ccTLDs can operate as a national identity signifier, a way to entrench political borders on the web.

Although ccTLDs are the most common marker of national affiliation, they are rarely used in the US, suggesting a largely US-centric structure of generic TLD use such as .com, .net or .org (Leiner et al 2002). The lack of a country-identification for US businesses and personal sites may have been one of the drivers for the idea that the internet can be a borderless space. The use of ccTLDs is far more common in countries other than the US. We suggest that one of the reasons for this could be an attempt to carve out a national space on the internet where borders are deliniated, to clearly mark non-US territories and to provide symbolic markers for internet users.

The United States is an exception to this sort of identification. We’re the white people of the web in this way—the rarely-acknowledged default that doesn’t experience a national identification with our ccTLD because so much of the web (and our web) is US-built and US-centric.

Although much rhetoric in western countries still speaks of the one single internet that spans the world, the experience of talking about the internet in Kazakhstan begins to question this notion of a global undifferentiated online space.

Is there really a global single internet, or is there a series of differentiable internets that happen to use similar architecture and integrated infrastructure?

In Kazakhstan, many commented on the importance of both Russian and English for simply navigating online. For many young Kazakh-speaking respondents, however, use of Kazakh was an important marker of ethnic identity and a deliniation [sic] of national space online. Initially, young ethnic Kazakh activists translated interfaces of existing Western resources such as Facebook and WordPress into Kazakh by contacting the companies and offering translation services for free.

Language matters too, as a way of communicating but also self-expression.

I recommend reading the whole thing.