Constructing a red-light district on the Internet

Sunday, August 28, 2005

If you think politics makes strange bedfellows, try pornography.

Let me rephrase that.

A seemingly uncontroversial proposal to create a special domain on the Internet to help protect children (and others) from adult content developed strong opposition on the eve of its implementation earlier this month. It has been put on hold.

Joining forces to oppose the proposal: pornography fighters and some pornography producers.

Certainly these unusual bedfellows have different reasons for not wanting something called the xxx domain to be created on the Internet, but when they speak with one voice, the real and virtual governing bodies listen.

That’s why the U.S. Commerce Department, besieged by 6,000 letters of protest about the creation of a “red-light district” on the Internet, fired off its own letter requesting a delay in implementation. The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, the international body that among other things maps Internet geography, agreed.

Why is any of this important to Americans? Like it or not, smut is a multibillion-dollar business on the Internet. It is driven by demand and protected by the Constitution. We need to accept that as well as deal with it.

Five years ago, the Internet’s governing bodies and others began tinkering with the idea of creating a separate place on the Internet for adult-oriented material by adding “.xxx” as one of the 260 address suffixes that now identify countries, institutions and other cyber destinations.

The goal of the “dot-xxx” idea was to help parents and anti-porn groups identify and block access by children to indecent material; to protect the privacy and security of consumers who access such material; and to encourage providers of adult content to act more responsibly.

The .xxx conversation turned serious about a year and a half ago when a Florida firm, the ICM Registry, put together a proposal for implementing it. The proposal was sponsored by the International Foundation for Online Responsibility, a Canadian foundation with no connection to the adult industry.

On June 1, ICANN approved the proposal. As the time for implementation of the .xxx domain earlier this month neared, however, opposition solidified.

The Family Research Council, among other anti-porn groups, began generating letters and pressure. Murmurs of opposition began to arise within the adult-entertainment industry also.

The anti-porn groups say a .xxx domain would make Net porn legitimate, increase the amount of such material and reduce the pressure on the U.S. government to go after pornographers. “The .xxx domain proposal is an effort to pander to the porn industry and offers nothing but false hope to an American public which wants illegal pornographers prosecuted, not rewarded,” said Patrick Trueman of the Family Research Council.

For their part, some adult content providers voiced concern that the industry might be forced to give up lucrative dot-com real estate and be “zoned” to the margins of Internet traffic — or that the move might be turned into a tool for regulation or prosecution.

The last-minute opposition came as a troubling surprise to ICM Registry, which had carefully tried to form a system that worked to the advantage of all stakeholders. The sponsoring foundation, IFFOR, has set out missions that include making the public aware of ways to protect children online, sponsoring child safety and anti-child pornography organizations and programs, and creating a less-risky environment for consumers and providers of content, as well as support for freedom of expression.

The adult businesses that voluntarily sign up with ICM Registry would be required to sign a contract stating that they will adhere to responsible business practices, protect youngsters from marketing or targeting, defend customer privacy, ensure reliable identification of content (meta-tagging) and combat “unlawful malicious codes and technologies” such as spamming, spoofing and pfishing.

Establishing a .xxx domain would not eradicate Net porn, of course, but it could provide one more tool for parents trying to block such sites and better monitor their children’s online activities. It could encourage the adult industry to be more responsible. It could help grown-ups make better decisions.

And all of that could constitute a significant step forward.

Worry about government regulation in this situation is legitimate even if the likelihood is slight. ICANN is a private-public entity with global responsibility for the Internet’s operational stability. Theoretically, it is insulated from government control or sway.

But the U.S. Commerce Department actually operates the root server system that makes the domain names work. When a concerted letter-writing campaign can prompt the federal agency to big-foot a sincere and promising effort to make things easier and less risky for parents, consumers and providers, then strange bedfellows with strong voices become not just an oddity but a threat. Official U.S. intervention could heat up concerns in some countries that ICANN is overly influenced by American policy-makers.

In the minds of many, pornography is a worst-class ticket to perdition. They believe that full-force prosecution, even if it is impractical or unconstitutional, is the only option. On the other side are those who believe that private and government powers should not interfere with what grown-ups choose to access in cyberspace.

In the meantime, the vast majority located somewhere between those two positions should welcome any tool that helps Internet users, young and old, safely navigate the Internet.

Paul K. McMasters is First Amendment ombudsman at the First Amendment Center, 1101 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, Va. 22209. E-mail:

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