Tokelau: How its internet domain makes it the largest nation online

The worlds largest country... according to the internet

Mitiana Arbon

Society and culture, Development | Pacific

17 March 2016

Mitiana Arbon reflects on how the tiny nation of Tokelau is currently beating the rest of the world on the internet. 

A recent map of the world scaled in proportion to ‘registered country domains’ has been making waves amongst online communities, through the prominent feature of Tokelau, as the world’s largest country.

Tokelau’s .tk is almost double Germany’s and China’s domain names combined (Photo: Russell Haworth/Nominet)

For many people, the tiny nation of Tokelau is not a place that is casually dropped in conversation. With a population of about 1,300 people spread across three atolls its total land area of 10.8 km2 is too small even for an airport.

Despite its size, Tokelau has proved itself to be a big hitter on the Internet, with over 31 million registered ‘.tk’ domain names. Almost double that of China (.cn) and Germany (.de), the next largest resisted providers. Since 2012, Tokelau also claims a place as the world’s first provider of 100 percent of its electricity needs though renewable sources.

Although the US associated .com is by far the largest used domain with over 123 million registrations. This is due to restrictions on ‘.us’ to government and schools, only made available to the public in 2002. For Tokelau, .tk provides the small nation with one-sixth of its GDP. Its popularity is due to the fact that it is actually free to register a website.

Launched in 2006, access to .tk website registration is provided through the Dutch company Freenom (formerly Freedom Registry), brainchild of Joost Zuurbier. Whilst most website registration and renewal at Freenom requires no payment, the company’s profits are provided by advertising on expired domains. When websites are abandoned or do not meet the minimum requirements of 25 unique visitors every 90 days, it is ‘parked’, and replaced by advertising related to its original content.

Freenom does however charge for certain addresses such as brand names and URLs less than four characters. All revenue made by the company’s .tk websites is then shared back with the people of Tokelau.

According to Zuurbier, Tokelau was so obscure it took 5 years to convince ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers) – who control the provision of domain suffixes – to allow the launching of the .tk as a domain name, partly due to the group’s lack of belief that the islands even existed.

The revenue from .tk has helped to bring much needed investment into internet facilities and online resources across the islands. Zuurbier had previously reported that the islands in the past “had dial-up, but there was such a slow bandwidth, they could only use it for e-mails without any attachments. If there was any attachment, they had to actually make a call to New Zealand to remove the attachment, because otherwise, the e-mail wouldn’t get through.”

The St Theresa heading to Fakaofo atoll, Tokelau, 2012. (Photo: New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade/Flickr)

These days, Tokelau boasts free broadband. In addition to a network of a hundred or so laptops with internet access in internet cafes, the hospital and schools across the islands.

Tokelau’s model for domain registration now helps to provide similar services for other countries. Such as Equatorial Guinea (.gq), Mali (.ml), Gabon (.ga), Central African Republic (cf.), and most recently Malaysia (.ml). Countries with the highest user registrations for .tk include China, Brazil and Turkey.

Despite its impressive internet domain status, Tokelau is by definition not actually a country. Rather it is a non-self-governing territory of New Zealand, choosing to defer matters of defence and foreign relations to New Zealand in exchange for localized sovereignty. Numerous attempts at self-governance have been made for independence, including a U.N supported vote in 2006. However, for now, this small coconut palm fringed nation rejects any thoughts of independence, in exchange for the place as the world’s largest country according to the internet.

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