‘.xxx’ Ruling Has Far-Reaching Implications for the Internet

from www.technewsdaily.com – Once again, pornographic websites are serving as vanguard for profound changes in the structure of the Internet. In Brussels this morning, The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), the international corporation that regulates domain names like .com and .net, said today that it will reverse a previous decision and allow .xxx addresses for adult entertainment web sites within the next year.

The ruling has implications beyond just the porn industry, and could affect the content and form of the vast wave of Chinese- and Arabic-character web address that are sure to change the nature of the Internet in the coming years.

Milton Mueller [pictured], a professor at the Syracuse University School of Information Studies, said that by codifying internal definitions of consensus, morality and social good, ICANN took its clearest stance yet on how it might deal with the rush of domain name applications from societies far more restrictive than American and Western Europe.

“ICANN made a ton of mistakes on the way to .xxx,” Mueller told Tech News Daily. This process “has taught ICANN that it needs to be more aware of the consequences of its actions not just in a technical sense, and less naive about how it interacts with government.”

The road to .xxx began over 10 years ago, when ICANN first began accepting industry sponsored additions to the usual battery of addresses like .gov and .edu.

ICANN created seven new top-level domains (TLD), including .info and .museum, but rejected applications for .xxx, .sex and .adult. A 2004 reapplication by the private company ICM Registry led to ICANN accepting a .xxx TLD, but a year later ICANN changed its mind.

ICM Registry appealed that decision with ICANN’s independent review board, which ruled in favor of ICM Registry earlier today. ICM Registry wants to create a .xxx TLD as a mark of quality for adult sites, said Stuart Lawley, chairman and president of ICM Registry.

“If you’re a surfer and you’re about to choose to visit an adult site, you don’t know if that site is a responsible site. You don’t know if they’re conforming to best business practices with security, malicious code, etcetera,” Lawley told Tech News Daily.

“Before you even type it in, you know that a .xxx operator is adhering to a well known set of business practices.”

Lawley thinks a .xxx TLD will help consumers find safe adult entertainment and make it easier for parents to shield children from the same content.

But the adult entertainment industry sees .xxx as a threat to their business and the prelude to legislative action, said Diana Duke, executive director of the Free Speech Coalition, an adult entertainment trade association.

“We believe that ICANN has been misled that there has been support,” Duke said. “Having a sponsored TLD implies that it includes the business in the industry, which wouldn’t be the truth.”

This conflict between adult entertainment industry leaders and ICM Registry has forced ICANN to reevaluate the process for approving new TLDs, Mueller said.

Initially, ICANN required any business-related TLD to have the support of the industry it represents. Since .xxx clearly lacks that support, today’s ruling has forced ICANN into uncharted territory, Mueller added.

The .xxx case also compelled ICANN to reevaluate how it deals with national governments, Mueller said.

In 2005, then-Assistant Secretary for Communications & Information Michael Gallagher petitioned ICANN to dismiss ICM Registry’s request for the .xxx TLD. In the letter sent to ICANN, Gallagher noted that 6,000 Americans wrote to the Department of Commerce in fear that a .xxx TLD would make it easier for children to find adult material.

“The US government is really dancing with a constitutional violation, because they are thinking so long as a policy is laundered through ICANN, they can get away with it,” Mueller said.

This government interference has also further eroded the relationship between the adult entertainment industry, ICANN and ICM Registry, as it recalls the 1996 Communications Decency Act, a piece of legislation that would have required all adult material on the Internet to use a .xxx TLD, had the Supreme Court not overturned it on First Amendment grounds.

“One of the fears is that it would ‘ghettoize’ the industry, and make us an easy target for people who want to take down our industry,” Duke said.

“If it’s the officially mandated domain, we could be forced there by governments.”

The ICANN decision on .xxx TLDs could have far-reaching international implications, Mueller said.

For example, the Chinese, and many Arab governments, have much more restrictive free speech and Internet policies than the United States, and if groups begin proposing TLDs that offend the sensibilities, or break the laws of those less open countries, ICANN will be forced to choose between maintaining good relations and allowing free speech, Mueller said.

Additionally, those governments may want to prevent people from registering TLDs specific to a particular political entity, such as the .cat TLD used by websites written in the Catalan language of Southern Spain. As governments and their independent minded regions clash, ICANN will once again have to wrestle with how much consensus it needs before approving a new TLD, Mueller said.

And in making that decision, ICANN’s only guide will be the precedent set by the .xxx case.

“ICANN still has this naive view that they should make decisions about TLDs that will make it unnecessary for governments to regulate or censor websites,” Mueller said. “Calling .xxx the canary in the coal mine is a good way to put it.”

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