The comedian Eddie Izzard does a routine about British colonialism in which he describes a Brit arriving at an inhabited territory and waving away the natives’ obvious ownership of the land with the question, “But do you have a flag?”
These days, we might achieve the same ends with the demand, “But do you have a domain?” It is a symbol of nationhood, like a monarch or a national anthem. Hence, there was enormous excitement in my country when the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) recently approved the .scot top-level domain (TLD). It would have been important regardless of when it happened. But it took on an extra significance because 2014 is a big year for our wee land.
Scotland, my home, has been a nation since the ninth century. It has been inhabited far longer: probably around 10,000 years. Over this time, we’ve accumulated a complex, sometimes baffling, and often bloody history. And on September 18, that history will become more complicated still when we vote on whether to become independent from the rest of the UK.
For those not immersed in Scotland’s topsy-turvy backstory, it may be difficult to comprehend how we have arrived at this point, and why we might want to wave goodbye to our closest neighbors — and what any of this has to do with a domain name. Right now, everything in Scotland is seen through the lens of the independence debate, including technology. Whichever way you’re voting — even if you’re not voting at all — you cannot escape the discussion.
Administered by the Dot Scot Registry, a non-political, not-for-profit company set up in 2009, the new Scottish domain is the result of an expansion in the number of generic TLDs. It is technological, not political, and is unrelated to country-code domains (ccTLDs) assigned to nations as standard two-letter codes, like .uk (United Kingdom) and .de (Germany).
But the Scottish Government, the executive part of the nation, favors independence, and sees it as much more.1 In a press release in January, First Minister Alex Salmond said, “The .scot domain is long overdue in this digital age, and the worldwide family of Scots who have been waiting patiently since it was first proposed will soon be able to have this marvelously expressive domain as their online identity of choice.”
That time is fast arriving, but not until five days following the vote on independence.
Showing the tartan
Those outside Scotland might see .scot as just a geek thing, a side issue of little relevance. But for many people here, it’s an opportunity to align themselves as Scottish, not British, and to express what they see as their fundamental identity.
Few people actually own a .scot domain so far: they don’t go on sale to the public until September 23. The company has just released a group of pioneer domains, which feature a cross-section of Scottish life, including both the Yes (pro-independence) and Better Together (pro-UK) political campaigns. But there has also been great interest from individuals within and outside the country.
Dot Scot’s director, Gavin McCutcheon, says, “Our original sales targets are irrelevant now — they have been blown out the water!…We have been quite surprised at the support we have received from all corners of the world, from individuals to multinational businesses.”
At this writing, there were 2,013 individual supporters and 566 organizations signed up for a .scot domain name. For some, like blogger Alex Marr, the attraction is mere clarity. “I have a…Scottish sports blog, and putting .blogspot.com after my address is annoying. I want something that relates to my blog and shows what it is about, and .scot does that.” For others, like confirmed “yes” voter Andi Hart, it is all about patriotism: “[It] shows my pride in my country. Bring it on.”
McCutcheon has given a lot of thought to the attraction of .scot. “For some it is to differentiate themselves from the pack and be known as Scottish, with all the connotations for ingenuity, invention, quality, and reliability that brings,” he says. “For some charities, it is to assist in fundraising, where they want donors to realize that their Scottish operation is distinct from the UK one or international one. And for others, it’s a badge of allegiance, wanting to show they are part of the worldwide family of Scots.”
The phrase “the worldwide family of Scots” is used frequently in discussing .scot, and it ties in with a key Scottish Government objective. Scots beyond Scotland are of great interest to Salmond, who sees the diaspora as an opportunity to gain international support for Scottish independence, despite Barack Obama’s recent suggestion that we would be better to leave our constitutional arrangements as they are. There are around five million people in the United States and Canada alone who claim Scottish ancestry. They don’t have a vote, but they have a voice, and Salmond is keen that they use it to encourage the folks back home to vote yes.
However, despite the Scottish Government’s enthusiasm for .scot’s global potential, McCutcheon stresses that the company is not pro-independence. He notes, “Dot Scot registry is strictly neutral…[We] will not sign up any political party until after the referendum. We are non-political and non-partisan over the debate.” (Scotland is currently subsumed in the .uk ccTLD, along with England, Wales, and Northern Ireland. If the yes vote succeeds, Scotland will receive its own two-letter code in due time for general commercial, governmental, and other use, but when isn’t clear.)2
Rather than a political tactic or a private asset, the .scot TLD is intended to be a community-based public resource. Once the domain gets up and running, the intention is to use the funds generated to support digital initiatives in Scotland. McCutcheon explains, “[We want to] allow people with really good ideas to develop them into products and services or whatever to benefit the whole of Scotland.”
This fits with Scotland’s traditional self-perception as an egalitarian country, perhaps more instinctively left wing than the rest of the UK. For instance, the pro-independence camp maintains that if we remain in the UK, Scotland’s health service will suffer the same fate as the National Health Service (NHS) in England and Wales, where it is being slowly and inexorably privatized. Our education and legal systems are also run on entirely different principles from the rest of our union.
And this is the axis upon which the referendum debate pivots. Are our divergent policy choices evidence that Scotland is fundamentally different from the rest of the UK, and ought to go it alone? Or are they proof that the current Scottish Parliament (reconvened in 1999 after nearly 300 years) already gives us the freedom to plow our own furrow when we choose, but also to shelter within the larger UK in areas like currency and defense?
That is the decision that we must shortly make. And there’s no doubt that the independence debate is inflaming emotions. Polls indicate that 70 percent of us intend to vote — a startlingly high figure given that the most recent Scottish Parliament election saw a turnout of just 50 percent. And the result is increasingly close, with “no” ahead by single-digit percentages at the end of July.
We don’t yet know what sort of country we will be, come the 19th of September. Every day, people across the country are talking to their friends, colleagues, and neighbors, arguing about who we are, who we want to be, and how best we can achieve our aspirations.
That’s why .scot is a big deal. Every message we will send from our new domain says “This is us. We are Scotland.” What that means is not yet certain; we don’t have long left to decide.
Photo of Scottish Television and the Squinty Bridge from Paisley Scotland.
For the orthographically inclined, the Scottish Government has initial capitals because that’s its formal name, rather than a generic term referring to government in Scotland. There is also a Scottish Parliament. ↩
It’s also not clear what the two letters will be: .sc belongs to the Seychelles and .sl to Sierra Leone. Some Scots have floated suggestions like .ab for Alba or .ce for Caledonia (respectively, the Gaelic and Latin names for Scotland), but neither seem terribly satisfactory. ↩
Carolyn Roberts lives in Scotland and works in mental health. Her work has previously appeared in Oh Comely magazine and on BBC Radio Scotland. Currently she spends most of her time making silly faces at her new baby daughter.