Niue, a tiny island in the Pacific Ocean, claims that its internet domain, .nu, was stolen by an American businessman, and they want it back.

"This is digital colonialism,” said Toke Talagi, the travelling ambassador of Niue. “The domain is not used by our nation, and it hasn't given us anything, except for an internet connection. Also, Niue gets the blame for all the bad things done from .nu domains,"

Talagi is visiting Sweden, a country with more than 100,000 registered .nu domains. The word "nu" means "now" in Swedish, so the domains sold like hot cakes.

The first to realise the potential of the .nu domain was US businessman William Semich. In 1997, he applied to the predecessor of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) and since he was the first to do so, he got the rights to operate .nu and sell .nu domains.

At that time, neither Semich nor the government of Niue anticipated a million-dollar business.
"Our advisor told us that the internet was nothing to bother about," Talugu said.

A fierce legal battle is now raging between Niue and Semich for control of the domain. The government of Niue believes that the revenue for hundreds of thousands of domains would be a welcome contribution to the island economy. With 2,000 inhabitants, the country exports coconuts and fruit, but is largely dependent on foreign aid.

Asked what it would mean to Niue to control the domain, Talugu said: "Better schools, better health care, better infrastructure and improvements in tourism. That's what it would bring - economic independence. To us, this is a huge issue."

The government of Niue said that Semich agreed to pay 25 percent of the revenue to Niue, but Semich denies that. Instead, he has provided Niue with a free internet connection. But Talugu says that the cost of that is only a fraction of Semich's profits from domain sales. He compares the situation to the era when colonial powers bought vast tracts of valuable territory for a pittance.

"This is a struggle for justice and for the end of digital colonialism," he said.

His mission is to make the world aware of the matter: "I am certain that if Swedes knew that Niue doesn't get its fair share of the money, they would want that to change. Any decent person and any decent company would want that."

Per Darnell, managing director of NU Domain in Sweden, said that even if .nu refers to the tiny Pacific island nation, there is no reason why it shouldn't be controlled by NU Domain, which is based in Boston.

"Domains aren't geographical," Darnell said. "They could have picked any set of abbreviations, they just happened to choose a list of country codes."

He denied that there was ever an agreement that the government of Niue should be paid 25 percent of the revenue. “That would be a totally unrealistic level," he said. "That would be insane. We never agreed to do that."

NU Domain provides Niue with a free Internet connection, and that's more than most nations get, Darnell said.

"When the system was created, nobody expected the countries to have control of their respective domains. But those who acquired a country code domain were expected to do something for the internet users of that country. We did even more."

The annual turnover, according to NU Domain, is approximately $4 million.

"They're only interested in the money and don't care if it works well. You don't want to involve people who aren't serious, who only want money. That might be why ICANN hasn't redelegated the domain,” Darnell said.