Originally created 07/31/98

Islands hope to shift economy from fish exports to Internet

WASHINGTON -- Forget frozen tuna. Two tiny islands off the African coast with fishing economies have a new high-tech export: one-of-a-kind Internet addresses.

The world's largest online bookstore, Amazon.Com, has already taken up the offer.

Ascension Island and St. Helena, which together are just over twice the size of the District of Columbia, are selling World Wide Web addresses using the unique two-letter suffixes assigned to the islands, "ac" and "sh."

Their offers mean a company that failed to seize popular generic Web site names, such as "diapers.com" or "computer.com," can rush to buy "diapers.ac" or "computer.sh." Each address costs roughly $60 to $100.

Amazon.Com, for example, now can also be found on the Internet at "Amazon.sh." Electronics giant Motorola, whose Web site is "mot.com," also bought the rights to the "motorola.sh" address.

These aren't high-tech outposts in the South Atlantic: Reference books show their combined population is just over 7,000 people, and there are no television sets, a single AM radio station on St. Helena and only about 500 telephones. Chief exports include frozen skipjack and tuna, along with handmade crafts.

"They're selling their national asset and inviting any member of the Internet community to register," said Paul Kane, general manager for London-based Internet Computer Bureau PLC, hired by those governments to sell the addresses.

St. Helena began selling addresses using its "sh" domain last week, and nearby Ascension Island, also a British territory, will begin offering its "ac" suffix Monday.

Of more than 200 countries with unique Internet suffixes, most reserve them for government agencies and institutions, such as "us." Only a relative handful sell addresses to entrepreneurs: The same company providing "sh" and "ac" also registers sites for the British Indian Ocean Territory, whose suffix is "io."

The Internet Assigned Numbers Authority, under a U.S. government contract, assigns and regulates Internet suffixes for most countries, though some nations regulate their own addresses.

Last summer, the island kingdom of Tonga in the South Pacific began offering its "to" suffix. And until recently, the former Soviet republic of Turkmenistan was selling "tm" addresses; a note on Turkmenistan's Web site now warns that business was suspended because some addresses "may be legally obscene in Turkmenistan."

The fledgling industry is fueled by frustration. The popular "com" suffix, administered by Network Solutions Inc., a U.S. government contractor located near Washington, is so popular that hundreds of thousands of site names already are taken. As Tonga's Web site explains: "All the good (com) names are gone."

The novelty may end after the U.S. government largely ends its management of the Internet later this year, when new generic suffixes -- such as "info" or "shop" -- are widely expected to be added.

That new abundance of address combinations could reduce interest in Web sites using off-the-wall country suffixes.

Meanwhile, the practice fuels the frustration of big-name trademark holders, including some of America's biggest corporations, which are worried that unscrupulous Internet users might try to register "nike.tm."

In many cases, companies slow to register their own trademarks as Internet addresses have been forced to buy the site names from people known as "cybersquatters" or "cyberpirates," although Kane said his firm provides ways for companies to protect their names with "io," "sh" and "ac" addresses.

For Ascension Island and St. Helena, disputes are settled by the Geneva-based World Intellectual Property Organization. The Indian Ocean territory includes a unique directory system in which companies that register the same name actually can share Web addresses.


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