Net oversight board to consider .xxx domains

ICM Registry is again urging ICANN to allow adult sites to add .xxx to their names, creating what some have called a red-light district in cyberspace.

ICM Registry wants to establish .xxx designation for adult sites. ICM Registry

The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) board at its meeting Friday will consider a proposal from ICM Registry for adult sites to use the .xxx top-level domain instead of or in addition to .com.

This is hardly the first time ICANN has dealt with this issue. It rejected similar proposals in 2000, again in 2006 and most recently in 2007.

In an telephone interview Wednesday night from Nairobi (scroll down for podcast), ICM President Stuart Lawley said he successfully appealed the 2007 decision, paving the way for ICANN to reconsider the proposal on its merits.

The proposal has been a hot button for years, uniting some conservatives and some free-speech advocates in opposition to it. The conservative Family Research Council, for example, opposed the idea in a 2005 press release, arguing that "pornographers will be given even more opportunities to flood our homes, libraries, and society with pornography through the .xxx domain."

But the American Civil Liberties Union also had concerns. In 2004, ACLU's Barry Steinhardt told CNET's Declan McCullagh that "there are nations all over the world that will undoubtedly try to force Web sites into the .xxx (top-level domain) or to block Web sites in it that they somehow view as offensive." Steinhardt worried that "it will become a worldwide red-light district for the Internet, into which speakers who have free-expression rights and should be able to reach a mass audience will be forced." (Steinhardt has since retired from the ACLU and is now at the Stanford Center for Internet and Society.)

As an Internet safety advocate, my concern about .xxx is that it could give parents a false sense of security. True, it would be very easy to configure browsers or filters to automatically block sites designated as .xxx, but since this is a voluntary program, there would be nothing to stop adult site operators from also using .com. It would be like setting up a red-light district in a community while also allowing adult entertainment establishments to operate in residential shopping centers.

In our interview, Lawley responded to this concern: "It's not a great secret and everyone is aware that there is a lot of adult content on the Internet and...it was never my job or the job of .xxx to try to eradicate that." He expressed hope that "it would become the domain of choice for adult providers because of the benefits it would provide...The idea that this would be a universal panacea and cure-all for the issue adult content on the Web was never the intent."

Lawley called .xxx "an attempt at credible self-regulation by engaging with other impacted stake holders." He said that adult sites that use .xxx would be subject to "best business practices" that prohibition of child pornography and malicious software. It would also be "mandatory for .xxx sites to label their sites with machine readable tags. He called it a "win win win situation" for the adult entertainment providers, consumers of adult entertainment, and parents who wished to keep their kids away from adult content.

While I respect Lawley's sincerely, I'm still not convinced the .xxx is in the best interest of child protection or free speech. As Lawley admits, this isn't a panacea and, unfortunately, there are no other silver bullets when it comes to keeping kids from wandering into inappropriate online areas. Parents do have the option of installing content filters which are a lot better than they were when the idea for .xxx domains was first introduced, but even those are far from fool-proof. Until someone comes up with a better solution, my recommendation is that parents be with young children while they are online, check-in frequently with preteens and work with children of all ages--especially teenagers--to fine-tune that filter that runs between their ears.

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About the author

Larry Magid is a technology journalist and an Internet safety advocate. He's been writing and speaking about Internet safety since he wrote Internet safety guide "Child Safety on the Information Highway" in 1994. He is co-director of ConnectSafely.org, founder of SafeKids.com and SafeTeens.com, and a board member of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. Larry's technology analysis and commentary can be heard on CBS News and CBS affiliates, and read on CBSNews.com. He also writes a personal-tech column for the San Jose Mercury News. You can e-mail Larry.

 

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