X-rated content may get dedicated home in cyberspace

A controversial proposal to create a special domain for pornographic content on the Internet – dubbed the .xxx domain – appears to be gaining momentum after years of on-again, off-again negotiations with the Internet’s technical coordinating body.

Public comments about the latest proposal for the .xxx domain are due Monday to the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), which oversees the creation of domain name extensions.

ICANN has received more than 500 e-mail comments for and against the .xxx domain during the last four weeks.

The .xxx top-level domain would create a dedicated area of the Internet for sexually explicit material. The .xxx domain would be voluntary, meaning that existing pornographic Web sites in .com or other domains wouldn’t be required to switch to the .xxx domain.

Many religious groups oppose the .xxx domain because they fear it will lead to a proliferation of online porn. Also in opposition are some operators of pornographic Web sites, who say the .xxx domain will segregate adult content and lead to governmental regulation. Supporters say the proposal will make it easier to filter online porn because all .xxx content will be appropriately labeled.

"There’s been a lot of mixed messages sent by ICANN over the years, but I think we’re going to get .xxx this time," says Bret Fausett, a partner with Cathcart Collins, a Los Angeles law firm, and the author of the popular ICANN Blog. "I bet it gets approved before the second quarter of 2007."

ICM Registry, a Jupiter, Fla., start-up created to operate the .xxx domain, first proposed a dedicated domain for sexually explicit material to ICANN in October 2000. However, ICANN deemed this proposal too controversial and approved seven other domains instead including .biz and .info.

In March 2004, ICM Registry resubmitted its idea for a .xxx domain among a group of sponsored top-level domains that would be restricted to particular industries or groups. The ICM Registry teamed with Afilias, a provider of back-end domain name registry services, on this proposal. Since then, ICANN has approved several other sponsored top-level domains including .travel and .jobs.

In June 2005, the ICANN board directed its staff to enter into business and technical negotiations with ICM for the creation of a .xxx domain. However, in May 2006 the ICANN board rejected the .xxx registry agreement that the ICANN staff and ICM proposed.

ICM and the ICANN staff renegotiated the agreement, which was posted on Jan. 5, 2007 and discussed by the ICANN board at its January meeting. The new ICM Registry agreement includes prohibitions against child pornography and mandates machine-readable meta-tagging of content.

"We have a requirement for anybody in the .xxx domain to put on their sites machine-readable meta-tags that will make filtering easier," says Stuart Lawley, CEO of ICM Registry. "We have asked the Internet Content Rating Association to produce a specific tag for adult content."

The ICANN board is expected to consider the latest public comments and revised .xxx registry agreement soon.

The next ICANN meeting is scheduled for March 26-30 in Lisbon, Portugal.

Lawley says he has no idea when the ICANN board will make a final decision about the .xxx domain. "It should have been done two or three years ago," he says.

Lawley says the ICM Registry has received tens of thousands of pre-registrations for .xxx names from operators of pornographic Web sites.

"`We’ve received more than twice our original forecast in pre-registrations since last May," Lawley says. "This leads us to believe that we will have many hundreds of thousands of names registered when we go live."

The ICM Registry says the .xxx domain will make it easier for willing adult consumers of online pornography to find legitimate providers of it, while it also will make it easier for families, schools, corporations and other organizations to filter pornographic content.

For corporate network managers, the .xxx domain offers the potential for easier and more reliable filtering of pornographic materials. The adult entertainment sites that participate in the .xxx domain must use machine-readable ICRA labels on all of the content, even when it is redirected to a site in .com or another domain.

"How the adult industry works is that they have multiple domain names pointing to the same underlying site," Lawley explains. "Any site that comes up when a user types a .xxx name in a browser has to be labeled with this metatag. In reality, a lot of the .xxx names will be pointing to .com and .net sites, and we’ll be proliferating the labels on the existing sites, too."

Only members of the adult entertainment community can register .xxx names that resolve to Web content. ICM says it has put in place several mechanisms to protect company and brand names from misuse including the availability of 10-year contracts for names that won’t resolve in .xxx.

"We have a special subset of names, non-resolving names that will never point to content on .xxx," Lawley says. "For argument’s sake, if a company like Revlon wants to reserve Revlon.xxx, there’s a mechanism to do that at a low cost. We’re proposing a 10-year parking program. The cost has yet to be decided."

Lawley says that the ICM Registry has registered a few thousand corporate and brand names that want to participate in the 10-year parking program.

"The .xxx domain is not a panacea. It’s not going to deal with the criminal element," Lawley admits. "But it will separate the responsible providers of the adult entertainment industry and allow them to associate themselves with good business practices."

Although the proposed .xxx domain is voluntary, Fausett predicts that government agencies eventually will pass regulations that require porn sites to use special domains such as .xxx. He expects governments to zone online porn the same way they zone other adult entertainment businesses to keep offensive material away from minors.

"At launch, .xxx is not going to be a very efficient way to police content. But three years from launch, I think it will be a very valuable tool for filtering content," Fausett says. "It’s going to take a long time and some national laws will have to be put into place, which we will see."

Fausett says corporate network managers will initially find the .xxx domain a burden because they will have to buy additional domain names to protect their brands, but eventually it will make filtering of Web content easier.

"The trademark people will be a little angry about this when they have to pay their blocking fees, but five years from now I think the IT people will be happy about it," Fausett says.

The proposal for a .xxx top-level domain is being re-considered at a time when more children are being inadvertently exposed to online porn. University of New Hampshire researchers recently reported that 42% of children ages 10 to 17 had seen online porn during a 12-month period. Two-thirds of the children said they viewed porn accidentally while surfing the Web.

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