Where have the United Nations, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the U.S. Air Force directed Twitter followers to learn more about military action in Libya? To an Internet domain controlled by the regime of Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi.
They aren't the only ones to send their Internet followers through Libya. So have House Speaker John Boehner (R., Ohio), Stanford University, Charlie Sheen, the White House, Kim Kardashian, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Paul McCartney, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and thousands of others.
The reason is a linguistic anomaly that might be Col. Qaddafi's most unlikely asset: Libya's Internet domain happens to be the English language's adverbial suffix: ly.
As a result, the .ly domain has proved attractive to English-language businesses looking for catchy online names—including bit.ly, Ow.ly and other popular utilities that compress lengthy Internet addresses, making them easier to email, link or fit the tight space on networks like Twitter. These helpful, simple -- and free -- services have become ubiquitous.
The .ly domain is controlled by Libya's General Post and Telecommunications Co., whose chairman, Mohammed al-Qaddafi, is the dictator's eldest son. It says it has rented out more than 10,000 .ly domains, either directly or through resellers.
Human Rights Watch, which has blasted the Qaddafi regime for blocking Internet access within Libya, is one organization that unwittingly used the .ly addresses. "It's ironic and a little bit distasteful," says Tom Malinowski, the group's Washington director, upon learning the news from a reporter.
A spokesman for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.) said her office was unaware of bit.ly's Libyan connection. But "given this new information, we will no longer be using this free service," the spokesman said.
A representative of New York-based bit.ly had no immediate comment on the Libya connection. A post on the company website, answering a customer question, said it paid $75 for the .ly address.