Monday, October 11, 2010

Libya's Terror Plot: Link Rot (Linkpocalypse?)

Vb.ly screen shot.

This is somewhat old news now (it's 5 days old — an eternity) but I think it bears mentioning. The URL shortener Vb.ly was shut down by the Libyan government when it seized control of the domain Vb.ly. The Libyan government runs Nic.ly, the registrar for all things Libyan. Nic.ly informed the owners of Vb.ly that because their shortener is aimed at shortening adult (porn) URLs, the service is in violation of Libyan law, based on Sharia law, that forbids adult content.

There is debate between the Vb.ly owners and Nic.ly, primarily because Vb.ly owners claim they had just been allowed to renew the domain, do not host any adult content, and never received any warnings of any violations. Nic.ly claims its partner had attempted to contact the owners ov Vb.ly on many occasions and feels that Vb.ly's adult theme (citing a photo of a woman on the front page with bare arms) is a violation of Libyan law. Interestingly, on June 1, Nic.ly issued a statement saying it would no longer sell domains shorter than 4 characters to non-Libyans, but existing customers could keep their short domains. There is plenty of debate here about whether Nic.ly is taking advantage of this opportunity to grab the Vb.ly domain for its own use. I strongly suggest you read the coverage:

Why Does This Matter?

We've all seen URL shorteners climb to the fore thanks to services like Twitter. Web developers' and content authors' fascination with long URLs means that a page address is often too long to fit into a tweet, let alone the back of a business card. Shotening a URL to just a few characters has become so commonplace that it is expected nowadays even in the mundane world of print. Gone are the days when you would have to come up with a brief page address/redirection for a campaign, now we can see advertisements with Bit.ly URLs, as well as those driven by other services. Google has Goo.gl, YouTube has YouTu.be, other companies have tried to get variations on their company names so they have control over their brand and, ultimately, all those links. And then there is Bit.ly.

Bit.ly is the largest of the .ly shortener services, but not the only one. Owl.ly and 3.ly come to mind. They are all at risk of seeing their core feature pulled. Because we have all come to rely on these shorteners so extensively, entire collections of links (blogrolls, tweet archives, advertising campaigns) can come to a crashing halt should these shorteners be pulled.

While all this develops, I still echo my concern about URL obfuscation and link rot. It's too easy to hide the true destination of a link when you mask it using a shortener. While I previously worried that link rot would manifest into links to porn/scam sites as the shorteners went out of business and had their assets bought up, I now wonder if the .ly shorteners will be seized and directed to Libyan government materials instead. Either way, the link rot I had feared from the over-use of shorteners seems heightened now that Libya has demonstrated that it can just take a domain back, possibly setting the stage for other countries with questionable motives.

To re-repeat previous posts on this topic, we are approaching 2012. The End of Days the Mayans predicted could be starting now in the form of link rot, catalyzed by Libya, and leading to Linkpocalypse.

Related:

Note: In case you don't get it, the terror and apocalypse references are over-stated on purpose. I don't truly think the world will end if Bit.ly or the others go away. At worst, it will be annoying and make all my bookmarked tweets useless. I am taking license with the themes because it's an opportunity to remind people that shorteners are not always a good idea.

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