Kastom in the Virtual Nasara

In Vanuatu, Kastom takes a lifetime to learn. More complex than any set of laws, it’s a tightly woven fabric of behaviour that is in a constant state of redefinition. Defined by respect and mutual support, it is measured and arbitrated by our chiefs and enforced by the community as a whole. It is at once amorphous and innately understood.

Although it manifests itself differently from one island to another, the importance of one’s name is integral to finding one’s place in local kastom. Indeed, the highest honour an expat can earn in Vanuatu is to be given a name. A naming ceremony implies the attainment of (usually honourary) chiefly rank. One’s name, in short, is the ultimate expression of one’s place, standing and role in the community. It conveys the very essence of its bearer.

Practices vary from island to island, but choosing – and using – a person’s name is rife with overtones about one’s relation to others. Expats are often confused, and sometimes amused, by most ni-Vanuatu’s unwillingness to address others by name. People are instead referred to in terms of their familial relationship to the speaker. Where relationships are unknown or ambiguous – between strangers, for example – a local default usually exists. It’s common to be addressed as ‘tawi’ in Tanna, though strictly speaking that would make you the person’s brother or sister in law. In a delightful example of linguistic drift, young women in North Malekula are almost universally addressed as ‘uncle’.

So why, when names possess such a strong tabu here in Vanuatu, do we put no stock at all in how Vanuatu’s name is used on the Internet?

When you type an address into your web browser, you’re using what’s called a site’s domain name. A domain name is chopped up into parts, separated by dots. Each section of the domain name has a certain significance. For example, ‘www.google.com’ has three parts. The ‘www’ stands for ‘World Wide Web’, and means that this is a website. ‘Google’ is of course the name of the entity that operates the site. The ‘.com’ part at the end refers to Google’s status as a commercial entity.

The last part of a domain name is known as the Top-Level Domain, or TLD. They’ve been used and abused well beyond their intended purposes, but TLDs are intended to say a little bit about a given site’s identity. Let me give another example: The Vanuatu IT Users Society’s domain is vitus.org.vu. The first part, ‘vitus’ is obvious enough. The second part says that we’re a non-profit organisation. The last part, ‘.vu’, says we are based in Vanuatu.

Every country has its own two-letter TLD assigned to it. This namespace, as it’s called, is property of the rightful government of the country in question, and is administered either by the government or according to its rules by an appointed body.

Some countries strictly control the way in which their TLD is used. For the longest time, arcane rules made it impossible to get a domain name in Australia that wasn’t hopelessly long and impossible to remember. In recent years, however, sanity has been the order of the day. auNet, the body responsible for administering the .au namespace, has proven itself a responsible and effective administrator.

By alphabetical accident, some countries’ domain names are worth considerably more than others. The .us namespace, for example, has resulted in clever domain names like ‘help.us’ and ‘delicio.us’. Tiny Tuvalu famously sold the right to market its domain namespace for a promised US $50 million. Speculators hoped that the .tv domain would prove irresistible to television networks, stations and shows the world over.

The anticipated gold rush never happened, due in equal part to slipshod management by the initial investors and a far lower level of interest than anticipated. In the end, administration of the domain was signed over to Verisign, the US company that administers the .com domain space, among many others. Tuvalu earns a modest dividend from it every year.

Niue followed a different route in leveraging their namespace. Their TLD ‘.nu’ translates into the French word meaning ‘nude’, as well as meaning ‘now’ in Swedish. Needless to say, those responsible were careful to sell more domains in Sweden than in France.

Administration of the ‘.nu’ domain was given to a small US company in return for the assurance that most of the profits would be used to improve communications capacity in the tiny island nation. As a result of this agreement, every single citizen of the tiny island nation has enjoyed access to free wireless Internet services since 2003.

Vanuatu is similarly lucky. Its domain name is ‘.vu’, which in French is the past tense of the verb ‘to see’. Obvious and easy to remember domains in this namespace include ‘deja.vu’ and ‘as.tu.vu’. It also looks enough like ‘view’ to be worth quite a bit to the English-speaking world as well.

Much to this writer’s chagrin, ‘impre.vu’ appears to have been all too foreseeable. The domain is currently registered to an individual in New Caledonia, but appears to have be unused. In short, it’s being squatted on, in order to sell it to the highest bidder.

The ‘.vu’ TLD is currently administered by Telecom Vanuatu. As far as anyone can tell, it operates without any oversight or guidance from government, and all profits go to the company.

While it’s impossible to say for sure, it’s quite reasonable to expect that revenues from domain registrations in the ‘.vu’ namespace could prove to be significant, if they’re managed properly. Some VITUS members have advocated that the proceeds from domain registrations be used similarly to Niue, to benefit people at the grassroots level.

No doubt TVL would argue that they are using revenues from domain sales to subsidise telephone rates. But the fact remains that an organisation focused on performing that task responsibly, and armed with a mandate to maximise the benefits to ni-Vanuatu, would almost certainly be able to do the job better.

Well managed, domain registrations could easily be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars a year – and with a little creative marketing, much more than that. So little is known about how the namespace is managed right now that it’s impossible to tell just what the potential is.

But there’s something at stake that’s far more important than money. Namespaces are a sovereign issue, too. It would be a matter of national shame, for example, if Vanuatu were to become associated with a notorious pornography site, or worse.

But let’s not dwell on the negative. Imagine if every person in Vanuatu could have an email address in the form of ‘name@village.vu’ and every business had its own ‘business.island.vu’ website. That’s no pipe dream. Run properly, domain registrations could make just such a thing possible.

Names matter in Vanuatu, and the Vanuatu IT Users Society strongly believes that Vanuatu’s Top Level Domain should be returned to the people of Vanuatu, in order that it can better support and reflect kastom in Vanuatu.