A tiny isle’s 20-year fight to reclaim its valuable domain on the internet

In this Wednesday, June 4, 2014 photo, people swim in the pool at the Matavai tourist resort in Tamakautoga, Niue. Severe population decline on the tiny Pacific atoll is threatening a culture that dates back more than 1,000 years. (AP Photo/Nick Perry)

The South Pacific island of Niue is one the most remote places in the world. Its closest neighbors, Tonga and American Samoa, are hundreds of miles away. The advent of the internet promised, in a small way, to make Niue and its 2,000 or so residents more connected to the rest of the world.

In the late 1990s, an American businessperson offered to hook up the island to the internet. All he wanted in exchange was the right to control the .nu suffix that Niue was assigned for its web addresses. The domain did not seem as lucrative as .tv — which was slotted to Tuvalu, another South Pacific nation — and the leaders of Niue (pronounced New-ay) signed off on the deal. But the two sides were soon at odds.


Now, after more than two decades of back and forth, the disagreement is finally nearing a resolution in a court of law. Disputes over domain names were not uncommon during the internet’s infancy, but experts are hard pressed to recall one that has lasted this long.

It turned out that .nu was, in fact, very valuable. “Nu” means now in Swedish, Danish and Dutch, and thousands of Scandinavians registered websites with that suffix, creating a steady business for Niue’s business partner, Bill Semich.

Niue felt it had been cheated out of a reliable stream of cash that would have helped it reduce its reliance on tourism and foreign aid.

Niue canceled the deal with Semich in 2000 and has since been attempting to reclaim .nu — which is now operated by the Swedish Internet Foundation, a nonprofit. It is seeking about $30 million in damages, an amount that could be transformative for a tiny island that was recognized by the United States as a sovereign state only in 2023. The dispute has landed in the Swedish courts, and a ruling is expected in the coming days.

“This is a unique, complex, and somewhat strange case,” said David Taylor, an intellectual property and domain name expert at the law firm Hogan Lovells, adding that this made it extremely difficult to predict the outcome.

Websites using the domain are not expected to face any changes even if Niue wins.

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