US government forces .xxx delay

The US government has managed to push the discussion about the proposed .xxx top level domain to the next ICANN meeting, causing a flare up in the debate about who controls the internet.

"The decisions made at the Wellington meeting will have a broad impact on the future of the internet," writes Elly Plooij-van Gorsel, former vice president of the European Parliament and founder of the European Internet Foundation, in a letter published on the Financial Times' website last week.

"If ICANN resolves the .xxx issue in an independent fashion, it will demonstrate to the world that it can stand up to US pressure..."

She wrote that this is not a question of whether people like pornography or not, "it's a question of whether the internet's future will be decided collaboratively by global participants or dictated by the world's sole superpower".

Stuart Lawley, president and chairman of ICM Registry, the private company seeking to run the proposed .xxx TLD says he is unhappy with the late move by the US.

"It is worrisome that ICANN's agenda is susceptible to an eleventh-hour intervention motivated by domestic politics in the US," he says.

"Given that ICM Registry had met every requirement established by ICANN, we came to Wellington hoping that the ICANN board would finally move forward with ratifying the contract," he says. "Apparently, however, we have been delayed again by another last-minute intervention by the United States Department of Commerce [DOC]."

The DOC wrote a letter alleging that there were discrepancies between the contract and ICM Registry's application, he says.

"Unfortunately, the DOC was working with a document that was six months old. In fact, the ICANN board requested contract changes last September, and ICM Registry readily agreed."

The camp that strongly opposes the .xxx TLD proposal consists of anti-porn, religious and right-wing groups, but also porn producers and the Free Speech Coalition (FSC), a US trade association of the adult entertainment industry.

"We see no appreciable advantage to having .xxx domains other than for the registry administering the space to make a lot of money," says Tom Hymes, FSC's communications director, who attended the meeting in Wellington. "Whatever minimal advertising prospects it might present [to adult entertainment companies] are more than offset by the threats presented by a .xxx TLD."

The threats, according to the FSC, are that the domain would lead to a "ghettoisation" of protected speech and that repressive governments would be able to more easily track down and punish consumers of online pornography.

Lawley responds that "governments that track the surfing habits of its citizens use the Internet Protocol address assigned by a user's ISP, and not the URL of the sites they visit".

The FSC also fears that governments would force all websites with pornographic content into the domain.

"There is legislation introduced right now in [US] Congress that would do just that. Whether this bill is going anywhere or not, it is certainly proof positive that governments will attempt to make an adult TLD mandatory," says Hymes.

Lawley, on the other hand, says that the .xxx TLD will only accept websites that comply with regulations set by the not-for-profit organisation International Foundation for Online Responsibility, which would consist of representatives from the online pornography industry, the free speech community and child-safety organisations. The .xxx TLD would be self-regulated, he says.

"It is the other way around," says Hymes. "You may have to buy your domain in order to protect your trademark or brand, and only then are the policies forced upon you. They are as yet vague and undefined, so yes, we are concerned about de facto regulation disguised as self-regulation."

Contrary to what ICM Registry says, the majority of adult entertainment companies do not support the .xxx proposal, says Hymes.

The FSC says that a .xxx TLD will not create a framework to protect children from exposure to online porn. Instead the organisation proposes a .kids TLD.

"There is absolutely no question that as far as young children go, filtering in is an infinitely safer proposition than filtering out. It may take time for such a space to evolve, but in the end it would provide protections that would far exceed the illusory ones claimed by the proponents of .xxx," says Hymes.

Liz Butterfield, executive director of the Internet Safety Group says that .xxx will make filtering easier only if the majority of pornography sites enlist themselves with .xxx.

"There is no easy solution," she says. "This [.xxx] is potentially a positive move, and .kids may be the same, but I think there are plenty of young people who wouldn't want the safety of .kids, and those are the ones we are concerned about."

Hymes does not think that a .kids domain contradicts the free speech philosophy.

"We regulate young children all the time," he says. "I do not allow my two year old to run through the streets or watch anything he wants on TV."

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