You’ve seen them floating around on the Web. Billions of them are sent out each month. They’re the .ly url shorteners — bit.ly, ht.ly, ow.ly — that shrink unwieldy Web addresses into bite-size urls and have become prominent thanks to Twitter and its 140-character limit. Although the adverb-making ending allowed folks to punch up the url language, some people do not find its origin very amusing.
That’s because .ly is the country code for Libyan Internet. Although the urls are sold through private registry companies, the government has final control of the codes.
When a Wall Street Journal reporter pointed out to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office that the Libyan government had a distant role in the .ly shorteners, her spokesman, Drew Hammill, said they would find other ways to shrink the links used in the California Democrat’s tweets.
She’s not the first politician to decry the Libyan connection. In October, Republican Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign sent out a statement saying that it would be looking for alternatives to the Mitt.ly url that directed people to his Web site. His campaign then leased the url Mi.tt from a Trinidad and Tobago registrar.
It brings to mind the congressional move to rename all French food as “freedom” food after France refused to support the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Two years later, the congressman behind that effort,Rep. Walter B. Jones (R-N.C.), would say he regretted his role in the freedom-fry movement.
The .ly craze started in 2008, when the U.S. company Bitly settled on a name that evoked what its shortener would try to do: put together little bits of data for their users, chief executive John Borthwick said. The company paid $75 for a url from a private Libyan registrar, Libyan Spider.
Other companies soon joined the link shortening field. Web sites jumped on the .ly bandwagon. Newspapers bought vanity urls (such as The Washington Post’s wapo.st) through Bitly.
As tensions between the United States and Libya increased, concern rose over using anything connected to the Moammar Gaddafi government. However, it may be a misplaced worry.
“It doesn’t really harm Libya by not using it, and it doesn’t really help Libya by using it,” said Ryan Holmes, chief executive of HootSuite Media. HootSuite owns the shortener Ow.ly, paying $75 a year for the lease on the url.
Libyan Spider chief executive Hadi Naser said his company has registered about 8,000 of the 10,000 urls sold by Libyan companies, charging about $75 a year for each url. He pays a 10 percent fee to a nongovernmental organization in Libya that mantains the .ly network.
Rather than worry whether tweeting a .ly link shows support for Gaddafi’s regime, the real question may be whether or not the government has the ability to shut off service to the .ly registration sites. It’s a possibility, the chief executives said, but such a remote one that they cannot picture it happening. Furthermore, current .ly domains would not be affected because there are servers in the United States and Europe.
Naser said purchasing the .ly domains supports Libyan citizens, not the government. “Is it my fault to be a Libyan?” he asked by phone.
The Web-shortening companies have made other provisions. Ow.ly is working to acquire alternative urls, and Borthwick said his company owns J.mp and Bitly.com. Both can replace any bit.ly in a url and the link will still work.
As for the Pelosi and Romney bans of .ly, Mitt.ly still directs you to Romney’s home page and Pelosi retweeted an Ow.ly link last week. Someone please pass the freedom fries.