from www.thedailybeast.com – One of the early American republic’s hottest trades was land speculation. A square acre in swampy Virginia could be a future empire’s swanky capital suburb. And so, many of America’s richest men—and most of its framers—took some part in the feverish prospecting game, carving out tracts that still bear their names.
But in 2000, when the affable British net tycoon Stuart Lawley first proposed a similar plan, he didn’t make many friends. Lawley dreamed of a “.xxx” domain name: fresh land for all the porn the Internet could hold.
But the adult film industry balked, fearful that the “.xxx” option would become law and turn the Web’s red-light district into a walled-off ghetto. Senators Max Baucus and Eric Pryor tried to do just that. And the Bush-era Christian conservative coalition objected for all the reasons you might expect. Amid the backlash, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) turned his application down three times in a row.
But last March, with thousands of “.xxx” preorders already in Lawley’s pocket, ICANN buckled, and gave his company, ICM Registry, exclusive dominion over “.xxx”—akin to VeriSign’s lucrative hold on “.com.”
Today, the reason for his persistence is clear. Lawley has sparked a landrush: “.xxx” is a license to print money—the most financially successful new domain name in decades.
ICM has sold just short of 230,000 “.xxx” URLs, according to official data from ICANN. That’s five times more than the company expected when it first filed with ICANN. Indeed, in his original business plan, Lawley’s best case scenario was reaching 250,000 names after five years. The company has amassed more than 70 worldwide resellers, middlemen like GoDaddy, who have pumped up sales volume.
At minimum, each of those 230,000 “.xxx” domains bring in $62 a year at the wholesale rate—about 10 times the average fee for a “.com.” But ICM also sells “premium” names for huge pricetags. Gay.xxx? Sold for half a million dollars. Fetish.xxx and Shemales.xxx went for $300,000 and $200,000 apiece. The lion’s share of the rest go for above $50,000. The company has sold more than 200 premium names so far, and just listed another 1,000. If you’re interested, you can be the proud owner of www.girls.xxx for $222,000.
For Lawley, the speculation will pay off. Do the math, and the company is on track to pull in almost $200 million this year.
The historic success of the “.xxx” name dwarfs almost all other “top-level domains,” as they’re called. The classic “.com,” “.net,” and “.org”—long the only games in town—were supplemented by “.biz,” “.info,” .museum,” “.coop,” and a handful of others in 2000. Few took off. In 2004, the same year ICM applied for “.xxx,” ICANN added “.mobi,” “.tel,” “.travel,” “.jobs,” and “.post”. A bunch more duds. The explosive registration of the “.xxx,” over scores of objections, took pretty much everyone by surprise. As Lawley puts it, “We’ve been a bit of a pioneer.”
Beyond the impressive bottom line, “.xxx”’s impact on the Web has been huge —and controversial. The name now accounts for more than 20 million pages of porn. ICM’s stated mission, a holdover from its days fighting off the morality police, is to bring a bit of order and common sense to the Web’s backwaters—to clean up the pornosphere’s spam and virus, and “increase your girth”–filled Wild West.
And so, every “.xxx” domain is virus-scanned daily, and ICM performs a background check on all potential registrants to prevent fraud. The company even gives users the ability to screen all “.xxx” content if they wish. Lawley says that “.xxx” is a safer environment—and if it’s one you don’t want to tread in, the domain name designation makes it very easy to avoid.
For those who do want to stumble into “.xxx” every now and again, ICM also operates a search engine, “search.xxx”, which scored 1.43 million visitors in its first week when it launched in October, putting it among the top five thousand websites in the world. (Google started deranking adult content earlier this year; as Lawley put it, “Last year, if you typed in pussy, ‘pussy.com’ would be the No. 1 result; now, with the changing algorithm, ‘pussy.com’ is page seven.”) In short, ICM doesn’t just want to own its raunchy new land-holdings; it wants to keep them clean and well ordered, too.
Gay.xxx? Sold for half a million dollars. Fetish.xxx and Shemales.xxx went for $300,000 and $200,000 apiece.
“If you’re a man of the world,” Lawley told me, “you’ve encountered these disruptive pop-ups and adverts.” The Web speculator had already gotten rich on various nonporn-related ventures before ICM, investing, chairing, and selling a fax-machine company, a Web services firm, and a British Internet service provider. According to the The Sunday Times of London, he’s among Britain’s 1,000 richest people. He resides in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., where the 12-person ICM is based, and, according to Bloomberg Businessweek, drives a Rolls-Royce Phantom Coupé.