Libya's Widely Used Web Suffix Makes a Long Story Short for Obama, Others.
Where have the United Nations, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the U.S. Air Force directed Twitter followers to learn more about military action in Libya? To an Internet domain controlled by the regime of Col. Moammar Gadhafi.
They aren't the only ones to send their Internet followers through Libya. So have House Speaker John Boehner (R., Ohio), Stanford University, Charlie Sheen, the White House, Kim Kardashian, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Paul McCartney, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and thousands of others.
The reason is a linguistic anomaly that might be Col. Gadhafi's most unlikely asset: Libya's Internet domain happens to be the English language's adverbial suffix: ly.
[More from WSJ.com: The Sleepless Elite]
As a result, the .ly domain has proved attractive to English-language businesses looking for catchy online names—including bit.ly, Ow.ly and other popular utilities that compress lengthy Internet addresses, making them easier to email, link or fit the tight space on networks like Twitter. These helpful, simple—and free—services have become ubiquitous.
The .ly domain is controlled by Libya's General Post and Telecommunications Co., whose chairman, Mohammed el-Gadhafi, is the dictator's eldest son. It says it has rented out more than 10,000 .ly domains, either directly or through resellers.
Human Rights Watch, which has blasted the Gadhafi regime for blocking Internet access within Libya, is one organization that unwittingly used the .ly addresses. "It's ironic and a little bit distasteful," says Tom Malinowski, the group's Washington director, upon learning the news from a reporter.
A spokesman for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.) said her office was unaware of bit.ly's Libyan connection. But "given this new information, we will no longer be using this free service," the spokesman said.
A representative of New York-based bit.ly had no immediate comment on the Libya connection. A post on the company website, answering a customer question, said it paid $75 for the .ly address.
[More from WSJ.com: App Watch: Getting Religion on the Go]
"We don't do business in Libya, but it's worth noting that on May 31, 2006, the United States reopened the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli, a step the State Department described as marking 'a new era in U.S.-Libya relations,'" the post says.
However, an even newer era began on Feb. 25, 2011, when the Obama administration reimposed economic sanctions on Libya. A spokeswoman for the Treasury Department—another bit.ly user—said Americans could not rent .ly domains from entities controlled by the Gadhafi regime.
"It's a bit of an emotional question," acknowledges Ryan Holmes, chief executive of HootSuite Media Inc., the Vancouver, British Columbia, company that operates Ow.ly, a shortening service favored by the Salvation Army and the Israeli Embassy in Washington. "But at the end of the day, buying oil helps Gadhafi more."
Mr. Holmes says HootSuite pays $25 per year to rent the Ow.ly address from Libyan Spider LLC. The Tripoli reseller didn't respond to an email seeking comment. On its website, however, Libyan Spider assured customers that .ly domains would continue to function despite "recent events of unrest in Libya."