.xxx marks the spot

Ever hear of ICANN? Unless you are an Internet geek, you probably have not. ICANN stands for the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers. It is not a great acronym, but its obscurity may be something of a blessing, because ICANN’s work can sometimes be controversial.

Its more prosaic work involves establishing and overseeing rules to ensure that two people cannot offer the same domain on the Internet. They also authorize new “top-level domains”. These are the .com, .net and .org domains on the Internet that we have all come to love.

Most of these top-level domains are actually country codes, like .uk for United Kingdom. The bulk of web traffic though goes to those three letter top-level domains, .com and the like. Occasionally ICANN will approve a new top-level domain. I am glad they did. Some years back they approved the .info top-level domain, which I grabbed for my domain.

ICANN has proven to be miserly in approving new top-level domains. Maybe the paperwork is too much of a hassle. Some new generic top-level domains have been squeezed out over the last few years. In addition to .info, these include some you may not have heard about including .travel and .mobi (for mobile products and services). Many others have gone down ICANN’s bit bucket.

For example, there is the .xxx domain, first proposed back in 2000. As the name implies, it is to be used as a logical domain for sexually explicit content. If news reports are to be believed, my government twisted arms at ICANN to ensure this latest proposal got canned too. Last Friday the proposal was rejected by ICANN for the third time. Once more ICANN found dubious reasons for rejecting the .xxx top-level domain. You can read the surprisingly dry details here.

One of the more curious arguments ICANN gave in rejecting the application by ICM Registry, which wants to become the registrar of all things smutty, is that it avoided their “concern for the protection of vulnerable members of the community.” I am speculating here, but I think ICANN was expecting that any .xxx server should have a way to detect whether someone connecting to it was doing so legally. If that was its concern, it is an unreasonably high bar to meet. The Internet is inherently an open medium and authentication over the internet is costly, intrusive and technically challenging. This is no way to stimulate Internet commerce, which is what .xxx domains are about more than sex. Besides, if we wanted a proprietary and managed network, we would all be subscribing to AOL.

However, any site with a .xxx top-level domain should tell the average user plenty. It should tell parents of small children, for example, that they could easily block a lot of smut on the internet with a simple software configuration.

Had the .xxx domain gone through, those adult web site owners who chose not to get a .xxx domain would have been under no compulsion to get one. On the other hand, many adult web site owners would prefer to host under a .xxx domain. Their rationale is not hard to figure out. Using a .xxx domain would shield them from a lot of potential liability. If some child is surfing a .xxx domain, it’s quite clear that they are not their by mistake and Mom and Dad were asleep at the switch. In addition, it gives a clear message to potential customers what kind of business they are in. Not many people would accidentally surf to a .xxx domain.

Furthermore, what is wrong with consenting adults having their own zone on the internet for sexually explicit content? That such content is all mixed up now simply adds to the likelihood that someone will inadvertently see pornography on the Internet. There is no way to reliably determine whether a site is an adult web site without viewing it. There is no way for a computer to make an accurate judgment on whether an image contains sexual content.

A .xxx top-level domain should be a no-brainer. I suspect the real reason why the .xxx domain was rejected for the third time had more to do with certain people’s discomfort with human sexuality in general than anything else. I see parallels with our War on Drugs. Just as it seems politically impossible to declare the interdiction strategy in War on Drugs a lost cause, it seems politically impossible to agree that the Internet needs a .xxx domain. Because to admit that we need a .xxx domain implies that smut cannot be controlled on the Internet and that most humans enjoy pornography.

The reality of course is that smut cannot be controlled on the Internet, except through monitoring by local web hosts. With millions of domains, it is impractical to monitor every domain out there. A .xxx domain though would likely put a lot of peer pressure on the adult industry. In addition to likely giving them additional legal cover it would be seen as the responsible thing for purveyors of adult materials to do. “I’m a good Netizen. My sex site is on a .xxx domain. This means everyone knows what kind of content I offer. If they don’t want to see my stuff, I am easily avoided. I am protecting kids too.” I suspect over time, providing the top-level domain was administered impartially, most adult sites would migrate to a .xxx domain.

Admittedly, if it hit critical mass there would be the temptation to close the top-level domain down and thereby relieve the Internet of pornography. Would the smut problem on the Internet then be solved? This would be unlikely. It would be a simple matter to move smut back into .com domains again. Just because you can zone a red light district in your town, does not mean you can enforce it on the Internet. It is like passing a law that no one may send spam. We have these already and you can see how effective those laws have been.

Generally, if you take three strikes then you are out. ICM has not quite thrown in the towel. They are planning to sue the United States government, whom they alleged illegally pressured ICANN on the issue. None other than ICANN board member Susan Crawford suggested the same thing in her blog.

Smut is not going away. Now that we have the Internet, smut simply found a modern means of delivery. Smut predated the written word. We will carry it with us until the moment our species becomes extinct. Just as we cannot win the War on Drugs through interdiction, neither can we eradicate internet pornography through force of law and the power of public opinion. All we can do is acknowledge what we cannot change and change what we can. A .xxx top-level domain is one of the few tools in our Internet toolbox that can actually scope down the problem.

The only way to truly fix Internet pornography is to get rid of the Internet, which is not possible anyhow. Therefore, we must live with it. If we cannot stop people from using narcotics illegally, doesn’t it make sense to decriminalize its possession and tax it instead? Then why not use the same strategy with adult web site operators? Let adult domains hang out in their own .xxx top-level domain. Let the registrar collect a modest fee above other domains, and use it to fund more enlightening activities.

Perhaps some of the money could be used to bring the Internet to developing countries. If so then perhaps there would be some good come from smut after all.

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