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Dot TO isn’t what you think it is

What looks like a city-specific URL is owned by a country that outlaws homosexuality

The domain .to would appear to be Toronto-based, but is owned by the Kingdom of Tonga, a government where homosexuality is punishable by imprisonment and lashing. Credit: Andres Garcia M/iStock/Thinkstock

The City of Toronto is paying hundreds of dollars each year to a country where the civil rights of women are severely curtailed and where gay men face imprisonment and whipping.

It’s common to see websites appear with addresses that end in .to. Just like .com and .net, .to is a top-level domain (TLD) on the internet, under which individual domain names may be registered. Some Toronto-based organizations choose to register with this TLD, because TO is a popular nickname for the city.

But .to doesn’t belong to the city of Toronto. It belongs to the Kingdom of Tonga, a small island nation in the South Pacific, with a population of just over 100,000 and a government that’s very unfriendly to women and gay men. Domain names registered under .to are managed by the Tonga Network Information Center, whose website identifies it as “the national DNS registration authority for the country of Tonga.” Each separate .to name registration earns Tonga about $50 per year.

Women are constitutionally forbidden to own property in the Kingdom of Tonga. The Tongan criminal code also states that “sexual intercourse by a man with his wife shall not be deemed rape.” In 2009, a national study found that 79 percent of women and girls in the Kingdom of Tonga had experienced physical or sexual abuse. That same year, Tonga’s government rejected ratification of the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), because it would have required the country to legalize abortion and same-sex marriage, and give women the right to own land. “The Legislative Assembly believed that to ratify CEDAW would cut across our cultural and social heritage that makes up the Tongan way of life,” said the Tongan Prime Minister’s office in a press release at the time.

Gay men in Tonga face adversity as well. Sections 136 through 142 of the Kingdom of Tonga’s criminal code (which is available online at crownlaw.gov.to) explain that anyone “convicted of the crime of sodomy with another person” may be “imprisoned for (up to) 10 years,” and that the court may also “order the person so convicted to be whipped.”

The Government of Canada’s travel advisory for the Kingdom of Tonga reads simply: “Homosexual activity is illegal.” The UK’s foreign travel advice goes into more detail, saying “homosexuality is technically illegal in many Pacific countries and the law is occasionally enforced. Open displays of affection between same-sex partners may cause offence.”

Daily Xtra was able to confirm working .to addresses for municipal websites including the Toronto Police Service, the Toronto Public Health department, the Toronto Police Pensioners Association and the Toronto Food Policy Council. Other events and organizations affiliated with the city that use a .to domain includes the TD Toronto Jazz Festival (JazzFest), an annual event sponsored by TD Bank and other partners — including the City of Toronto.

Mathieu Chantelois, new executive director for Pride Toronto, readily admits this revelation caught him by surprise. “We were previously unaware,” he says, “of the connection between the .to URL with the Tongan government.” He confirms that Pride Toronto has never used .to domain names, and now that the connection is known, he vows “Pride Toronto will continue not to use it in the future.”

To other Toronto-based organizations that may be unwittingly supporting the Tongan regime, Chantelois offers solemn advice: “We encourage everybody not to support the Tongan government, whose view on the importance of equality, freedom and protections for all peoples — regardless of gender, race or sexuality — does not match our own.”

Daily Xtra requested comment from the mayor’s office, but no reply has been received.