.AI and .IO: URLs at the intersection of colonialism and hype (and Shakespeare)

Source: Natural Earth, 2011.

If you’re starting an artificial intelligence company, then you’re likely considering .ai as your URL. What else could be better at showing off your AI cred than having the vowels “a” and “i” follow the “.” after your company name?

After all, as the CB Insights chart below shows, .ai suffixes are as hot as the hype surrounding AI. The number of .ai startups receiving initial investments more than doubled last year — from 100 in 2016 to 220 in 2017.

Yet in 2013, .io was the darling URL suffixes for tech startups. With .ai at the fore, .io seems to have retreated into the background noise of the Internet, its brief popularity little more than a fad. The rise and fall of .io predicts an uncertain future for .ai as a suffix of choice.

What’s in a name?

Five years ago, domain registrar Name.com proclaimed on its blog, “.io has become one of hottest domain name extensions for startups.”

The reasons? The biggest was most likely domain name availability. Then (as now), it was difficult to secure a desirable name (broadly defined) with a .COM extension. Also, .io seemed to refer to I/O or input/output, and to confer nerdy bonafides.

Many people don’t know that .ai and .io suffixes are top level domains based on country codes. Much the way .fr refers to France and .jp refers to Japan, .ai refers to Anguilla and .io refers to Indian Ocean, or more precisely, British Indian Ocean Territory. Both geographic areas have been the subject of conquest and parts of the British Empire.

In reality, .io had been created in 1997 and refers to a geographic region called the British Indian Ocean Territory. The suffix was intended for web sites originating from an archipelago lying south of India, and between Africa and Indonesia. Notably the area included all 55 islands of the Chagos Archipelago, whose indigenous peoples had been relocated by the British government to Mauritius and Seychelles. (For an excellent background on the Chagossians and the tangled .io suffix, see The dark side of .io: How the U.K. is making web domain profits from a shady Cold War land deal.) It’s one thing for the natives of Chagos to have been forced to leave their homes, and yet another for them to witness their reduction to a two-letter branding device for Silicon Valley startups. This odd appropriation was not lost on Name.com, which at the time conceded that the surge in .io suffixes was “a little peculiar.”

We (Phil Libin, Jessica Collier, and I) explored the surreal aspects of this tangled issue in back-to-back episodes of the All Turtles Podcast. Our general conclusion was that a macro-level, the usage of .io and .ai is an unfortunate extension of colonialism, one fueled by the often unwitting participation of entrepreneurs, domain registrars, ICANN, and even people visiting the corresponding web sites.

Episode 12: Easy Rider (skip to 38:54)

Episode 13: Monday Night Fever (skip to 1:42)

Here today

Last year, the number of registered domain names surpassed 330 million, with nearly 40-percent of them containing .com suffixes. According to a Verisign spokesperson, the number of them with .ai or .io suffixes is too small to track.

Another registrar, DomainTyper, estimates that perhaps 5,000 URLs have .ai suffixes — a nearly infinitesimal percentage of total domains registered. And .io suffixes aren’t even on the radar, receiving an “N/A” for the number of registered domains by their tally. Take this as proof that Shakespeare was right, fame is ever fleeting.

 

William Shakespeare, the Bard of Avon.

So what’s an AI entrepreneur to do? To .ai or not is the question, and with apologies to the Bard of Avon, it’s an opportunity to prevent our consciences from making cowards of us all.

Three bits of advice:

  1. Take a deep breath and recognize that the popular use of .ai suffixes reflects the hype around artificial intelligence.
  2. Don’t convince yourself that the only suitable URL for your company is one that depends on an .ai suffix. Example: The URL for Google’s DeepMindends with .com, not .ai.
  3. Don’t be fooled by the idea that a URL referencing Anguilla is a golden ticket for attracting investment or the foundation for successful marketing.

A final bit of evidence:

Investors poured more than $15.2 billion across 1,349 deals last year. The 220 startups with .ai suffixes received just a sliver of this. What matters to investors are your product, your people, and your ability to execute your vision — not your URL suffix.

Given the choice between one of these alternate URLs versus sticking with the tried and true .COM, be aware of the cultural history behind .ai and .io, how they were acquired, and who profits from them.