"I wish I had cheeseburger," sighs Ben Huh, sounding very much like a cat his company would LOLify. But right now, the Cheezburger Network CEO—whose empire includes the photo blogs "I Can Haz Cheezburger?" and "So Much Pun"—isn't talking about cheeseburger, the food. He's craving cheezburg.er, the website, which is considerably tougher to order.
That's because all .er domains are owned by Eritrea, a tiny nation in Eastern Africa. Its totalitarian government won't register them to outsiders, refusing to cash in on the popular English-language suffix. "There have been discussions about changing this policy. No decision has yet been reached," is all its self-described "technical contact" will say. So it's no cheezburg.er for Huh, and nothing better—or bett.er—for anyone else.
Such is the mad, messy, burgeoning business of "domain hacking," the catchall term for when companies buy special extensions, like .do and .mp, to create distinctive web addresses like cre.do and chi.mp. Benefits abound. Domain hacks tend to be short and easy to share on social-media sites. The obscure extensions aren't typically as booked up, or expensive, as dotcoms and dot-nets. "And they're cool, especially for startups," says Huh, who also runs TheDailyWh.at. "It's like having a calling card that says, 'We're here, we're edgy, we're not going the mainstream route.'"
But supersuffixes aren't just branding gimmicks; they're national assets. Of the 310 domain extensions issued by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, which regulates the web like a techy United Nations, most are two-letter "country codes," such as .ca (Canada) and .de (Germany).
"They were assigned in the '80s," says Kim Davies, a manager at ICANN, "way before we knew what the Internet would become." So when U.S. companies hack URLs, they're actually paying rental fees to foreign governments (albeit through domestic vendors, like Go Daddy). Tuvalu, for example, nets a reported $4 million per year—roughly 13% of its GDP—from .tv domains; the Dominican Republic (.do), the Northern Mariana Islands (.mp), and many others (see sidebar) also reap rewards.
There's a hidden cost, though. In exchange for that great extension, websites are shackled to the policies—or politics—of potentially unstable foreign nations.
Last year, for instance, Libya, which owns .ly, abruptly shut down the adult-friendly URL shortener Vb.ly, citing national morality codes. "The domain had been live for a year, and all of a sudden, it was gone," says Violet Blue, the site's founder. "There was nothing I could do." Then, during the Libyan revolution, bloggers alleged that websites such as bit.ly and letter.ly—which paid $75 for their URLs—were somehow supporting Muammar Gaddafi's regime, causing a minor PR crisis. "They were trying to make it seem like a big deal," says Peter Stern, CEO of Bitly. "But if you ask random people on the street about top-level domains, 99% won't know what you're talking about."
That may change come January 12, when ICANN starts taking applications for dot-anything domains—meaning our bookmarks could include dot-apples, dot-googles, and even dot-cheezburgers. Though at $185,000 a pop, it might be worth waiting around for that decision from Eritrea.
A version of this article appeared in the December 2011/January 2012 issue of Fast Company magazine.