Essays I Don’t Have Time To Write: SCMS 2020 Edition

Every conference has been canceled, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t appreciate even the proleptic work-that-might-have-been-done-but-no-longer-will-be-at-least-not-in-that-form. I don’t know if I’m going to write the paper that I was supposed to give at the 2020 meeting of the Society for Cinema and Media Studies in Denver (would have been my first time at the conference!), but I wrote an abstract, and that’s something at least. Here it is:

“Felling the .amazon: The Colonial Geographies of Top-Level Domains”

Who should control the top-level domain (TLD) “.amazon”—one of the world’s largest tech companies, or the South American nations of the Amazonian basin? And by what technologies and techniques is that control exerted? In the spring of 2019, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), a nonprofit organization that oversees the internet’s domain names and nameserver databases, ended a seven-year-long dispute between Amazon and eight South American governments over the .amazon TLD, ruling in favor of the company. At stake were not only issues of website branding, but also the logics of how names emerge and circulate on the internet, and how the internet’s infrastructure facilitates the transformation of names into commodities.

The .amazon dispute was not the first time that Western companies have expropriated domain names otherwise assigned to the Global South. Domains such as .io (assigned to the islands of the Indian Ocean, now controlled by the U.K.) and .tv (assigned to the Pacific nation of Tuvalu, now controlled by the Virginia corporation Verisign) have long powered Western websites interested in their English-language connotations. My paper uses these three domain names as case studies to argue that the internet’s current naming infrastructures constitute a neo-colonial project that abstracts the geographical place-names of the Global South, themselves often records of colonial histories, into capitalizable resources available for extraction and speculation. To do so, I explore the technological “stack” through which domain names function and transact across markets, from the point of their initial emergence and propagation across networks to the kinds of disputes that characterize the “.amazon” case.

Drawing on media theoretical work on cultural techniques, particularly that of Bernhard Siegert, I argue that the addressing functions of top-level domains spatialize historically colonial geography onto the internet’s nameservers themselves. Domain names thus extend extractive practices that condition our ability to see and be seen on the internet.

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