A promotional ad for a Catalan public service campaign called “El català, llengua per a tothom” / “Catalan, the language for everyone.” The text reads “the only language with its own web domain.” (Generalitat de Catalunya)

.Cat, is without a doubt, the Internet’s single, all-time best domain. If cats rule the Internet — which they do, obviously — .cat puts .com, .net and .org to shame.

And yet, you almost never see it. There are few .cat start-ups, or .cat novelty sites, or cheeky .cat resumes. The exception, in recent history, was a site called nytimes.cat, which replicated The New York Times’s homepage. Except for the news photos, which it replaced with cat memes.

A screenshot of the now-defunct nytimes.cat. (Via Death and Taxes) A screenshot of the now-defunct nytimes.cat. (Via Death and Taxes)

But the founders of .cat, who spent years lobbying multiple governments and nonprofits for the domain, never intended for it to be used this way. That’s because .cat actually has nothing to do with felines — it’s short for Catalan, as in the much-persecuted language/culture of Eastern Spain.

A little history is called for here, so bear with me briefly — Catalans have had a rough deal for many years. Originally an autonomous nation-state in the east of the Iberian peninsula, with its own distinctive culture and language, Catalonia was folded into Spain in the 18th century — and systematically eroded from there. A series of Spanish monarchs dismantled Catalonia’s regional self-government in the 18th and 19th centuries. For much of the 20th century, under the dictatorship of Francisco Franco, Catalans were only allowed to speak, say mass, and do business in Spanish — a bit of authoritarianism meant to stamp out Catalan culture.

As the existence of .cat would suggest, that effort didn’t entirely work: depending on which methodology you swear by, between 5 and 10 million people still speak Catalan somewhere in the world.

[How the Internet is killing the world’s languages]

Still, in the aftermath of the Franco regime, there was a real, renewed interest in reviving and protecting the Catalan identity. And in the late ’90s, a guy named Amadeu Abril i Abril had an idea: use this new-ish thing called the Internet to unite, and promote, the Catalan community.

“For Catalans in the nineteenth century, a critical step was having our own literature — and later in that century, our own newspapers,” Abril, a law professor at Barcelona’s Ramon Llull University, told the researcher Peter Ferrard in 2005. “… In the twenty–first century the Internet is also important.”

A graph of registrations on the .cat domain over time. (Fundacio puntoCAT)

That might not seem like such a big deal now, but at the time, it was sort of insane. The Internet had only had eight top-level domains since the system was laid down in 1984, and they were all pretty generic: .arpa, .edu, .gov, .com, .mil, .net, .org, .int. Abril wanted to add one just for Catalan, a language I literally had to explain at the start of this story lest you not know what it was. More than that, Abril wanted to start the new domain for the express purpose of protecting and advancing a “cultural group,” which nobody had even asked to do before.

[What would happen if Catalonia seceded from Spain?]

Internet regulators were immediately skeptical: This wasn’t the purpose of the domain system, they argued. If Catalonia could have its own domain, so could every jilted medieval principality, religion, tribe … and terrorist group. They demanded letters from the governments of Spain and Andorra, okaying the new domain. They charged a $45,000 registration fee, on top of the more than $100,000 in travel and legal charges incurred by the campaign.

And in September 2005, against all odds, .cat went online: “the first domain in the world,” its overseers boast, “to represent a language and culture on the Internet.”

Since then, of course, registering culture-based domains (… and Wikipedias, and endangered language projects) has become a fairly standard way to protect minority languages and cultures in the Internet age. In fact, Spain’s other separatist-minded territories — Galicia, in Spain’s northwest corner, and the Basque Country, near the border with France — have also registered their own cultural domains: .gal and .eus, respectively.

Elsewhere in Europe, a Britain-based Web registry launched the domains .cymru and .wales “to create a genuinely Welsh presence online.” .Bzh is devoted to the language of Brittany and Breton. In Russia, a project called RUCLID is researching ways to use new domains to “facilitate preservation of cultures of small peoples inhabiting Russia.”

The big question for all of these projects, of course, is does the domain thing even work? Does a Catalan-language Web site on the .cat domain mean anything more than the same site with a .es or .com URL?

Advocates would argue yes: According to WICCAC, an organization that promotes the use of Catalan on the Web, Catalan-language materials have increased 25 percent since September 2002, when fewer than four in 10 Catalan businesses actually used that language on the Web. As of late 2013, Catalan was the 17th most-used language on Wikipedia, and the 8th most-used language on active blogs. And the .cat domain has also grown faster than any other in Spain: In 2014, the number of active sites with the extension grew 17 percent, to more than 88,000 active sites.

Most of them, predictably, are registered in or around Barcelona, with the balance elsewhere in Spain. But international businesses and organizations have also come on board: There is, for instance, a google.cat, and nespresso.cat, which redirects to Nespresso’s Catalan-language page.

But what about nytimes.cat? Or nyan.cat? Or meow.cat, or fat.cat, or any of the feline-related domain hacks that have, at one point or another, encroached on the Catalan language community?

Carles Matamoros, a spokesman for the foundation that oversees the .cat domain, said the group does audit sites from time to time to see if they’re following the Catalan-language rule; if they’re not, they have six months to shut down, change course, or add some kind of translation tool. After hearing from the foundation, for instance, Nyan.cat added an option to translate the page to Catalan.

It’s apparently too late for nytimes.cat, however: Some time in the past 12 hours, the site was taken down.

Liked that? Try these: