Bouvet Island has little to offer. The most remote island in the world is fewer than 20 square miles in size, and it’s almost entirely covered by a glacier. Long ago, it was an active volcano, but those fiery days have long since passed. Now, it’s home to hundreds of thousands of seabirds, a Norwegian research station, and its own top-level Internet domain.
Top-level domains serve as part of the Internet’s architecture. Aside from generic domains like .com and .edu, every country has a specific two-letter domain assigned to it. The United Kingdom, for example, uses .uk; Japan uses .jp. The United States has .us, though it’s not widely used. The original idea was that each country could manage the websites registered by individuals and organizations within its borders by issuing them websites that use their country-specific domain.
Where in the world is Bouvet Island?Gif: Google Maps/Google Earth/IEEE Spectrum
But here’s the weird thing about Bouvet Island having its own top-level domain: It’s uninhabited. It’s always been uninhabited. Located in the southern Atlantic, the closest land to Bouvet Island is the coast of Antarctica, 1,100 miles to the south. The closest inhabited land is the island Tristan da Cunha, a British overseas territory located 1,400 miles to the north (Interestingly enough, Tristan da Cunha does not have its own top-level domain.)
So how did Bouvet Island end up with the .bv domain—a domain which is not in use and not open to registration?
It starts with the United Nations. The U.N.’s Statistics Division maintains a publication called the Standard Country or Area Codes for Statistical Use. Published since 1970 and also known as the M49 standard, the U.N.’s primary intention is to use its three-digit codes to group nations and geographic regions for statistical analysis.
Since 1974, the International Organization for Standardization, an international standards body just as unaffiliated with management of the Internet as the U.N., has used the M49 standard to develop its own standard, ISO 3166. There are several lists, but the important one for now is ISO 3166-1 alpha-2, a very alphanumerical way of naming what is essentially a list of two-letter codes to represent “countries, dependencies, and other areas of particular geopolitical interest,” according to ISO. Does “two-letter codes” sound familiar?
We’re almost through the briar patch of organizations and lists that resulted in the current set of country-specific domains. Since 1988, the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority has managed the Web’s Domain Name System—basically the system that converts our plaintext addresses like spectrum.ieee.org into the actual numerical IP addresses that computers use to navigate to specific sites. As such, IANA is also responsible for managing top-level domains. For countries, IANA pulled from ISO 3166-1 alpha-2, in order to avoid the messy business of being an Internet-managing organization required to play geopolitical favoritism. Rather than decide what is and is not a country, IANA pulled from an available list.
This 2014 research station on Bouvet Island was built to last 20 years…hopefully. The previous one blew out to sea.Photo: Marius Bratrein/Norwegian Polar Institute
Bouvet received its own top-level domain because it has been a territory of Norway since 1930. That was enough for the island to receive a unique listing by the U.N. for statistical purposes, and that distinction has carried it all the way to the digital age.
To be fair, it’s not the only uninhabited island with its own top-level domain—for example, the Heard and McDonald Islands are uninhabited islands controlled by Australia with the domain .hm. But Australia has opened up the .hm domain for use outside of the islands. (Although there are few takers. For instance, one of only a handful of sites is the personal website of a computer scientist in São Paulo, Brazil.)
Photos: Top, Aleksander Nyborg Kiil/Norwegian Polar Institute; Bottom: Tor Ivan Karlsen/Norwegian Polar Institute
Bouvet has the distinction of being not only uninhabited and having its own domain but also an uninhabited island with an entirely unused domain. IANA established .bv as a top-level domain on 21 August 1997, and not a single Web address that uses it has ever been registered. As an interesting aside—there are many in the world of top-level domains—Spitsbergen and Jan Mayen are also Norwegian island territories, though inhabited, with their own domain, .sj, that the Norwegian government has also decided not to use.
It’s not entirely clear why Norway has not capitalized on .bv. For years, there has been a trend to use country code domains to create unique and memorable Web addresses, so-called vanity domains. The Pacific island nation of Tuvalu was one of the first countries to recognize the value in its country code (.tv), and opened up its top-level domain for general use in 1998. Today, nearly 10 percent of the Tuvalu government’s revenue comes from the money spent on registering .tv addresses.
That’s not to say Norway hasn’t recognized the value in its top-level domain. Norid, the Norwegian organization that manages the .no registry, as well as .bv and .sj, explored a possible option in 2012. In yet another coincidence of one country’s top-level domain being another country’s treasure, .bv is potentially very desirable in the Netherlands, according to Hilde Thunem, Norid’s managing director.
In the Netherlands, “BV” is similar to “Inc” or “Ltd” in English-speaking countries. The idea at Norid was to open up an unused top-level domain for Dutch businesses that would want to end their Web addresses in a stylish .bv.
Thunem explains that, as far as Norid was concerned, because .bv was being opened up for Dutch users, its use should be dictated by Dutch law. Because .bv’s use falls under Norwegian law, Norid was required to apply for special dispensation from the Norwegian Communications Authority (NKOM).
By 2016, however, NKOM had decided against opening up .bv for registration in the Netherlands. For NKOM, handing over .bv registration to Dutch, rather than Norwegian, authorities was apparently not worth the potential value of opening the domain.
NKOM’s decision has guaranteed that for now, .bv will remain an unused resource. Considering that the only structure on the island is a research station, usually unmanned, which replaced the original 40-year-old automated weather station after an earthquake and avalanche swept it out to sea in 2014, there isn’t much need for Web pages. So unless one of the countless migratory birds decides to set up a personal blog, it will probably remain a remote place on the Internet for a long time to come.
Michael Koziol is an associate editor at IEEE Spectrum where he covers everything telecommunications. He graduated from Seattle University with bachelor's degrees in English and physics, and earned his master's degree in science journalism from New York University.