I was on vacation last week when ICANN handed down its latest rejection of the ".xxx" top-level domain (TLD). I just wanted to make two quick points about why I find this decision quite troubling.
First, it's obvious that some critics of the .xxx TLD oppose the proposal because they think it somehow legitimizes online pornography or will lead to the proliferation of even more cyber-porn. I find this argument bizarre and naive. As John Dvorak makes abundantly clear in his recent PC Magazine column, Internet pornography is not going away and it is almost impossible to imagine how the .xxx TLD could have done anything to make it more accessible. Dvorak rightly asks: "How hard is it to find porn on the Net? Go to any search engine and type porn. Open your e-mail box. Who are these people kidding with this argument?"
What the critics fail to understand is that the .xxx TLD actually could improve things greatly. Here's how: As a condition of receiving a new .xxx domain name from the TLD's operator (ICM Registry), any adult website provider would have to agree to label their new .xxx websites, as well as all their comparable sites with similar domain names, with accurate metadata tags. In other words, if you wanted www.porn.xxx, you would have to agree to self-label that site with accurate metadata and then also label your www.porn.com, www.porn.org, www.porn.info sites the same way. Those metadata tags would make it much easier for your browser or Internet filter to screen out potentially objectionable online material.
Moreover, ICM would require all .xxx registrants to adopt a series of "best practices" to avoid marketing adult material to children, avoid the use of misleading domain names, and root out any child pornography found online. How can any of that be a bad thing? What we're talking about here is an effort to make the adult entertainment industry more accountable and responsible. But some critics refuse to allow that because they equate it with legitimizing pornography. Again, at some point, we as a society have to come to grips with the fact that porn is not going away. We are going to have to encourage this industry to get serious about being responsible and taking sensible steps to self-regulate to help parents shield their kids from objectionable content. In my opinion, .xxx TLD would help bring that future about.
Second, this decision makes it clearer than ever that ICANN is now in the content regulation business. Burke Hansen of The Register correctly notes that "The debate raged largely around the phony issue of whether a .xxx domain would put ICANN in the content regulation business, when rejecting the domain is itself a content regulation decision." (Susan Crawford, who is on the ICANN board of directors and who voted for the .xxx proposal, reflects more on that point here.)
As Solveig Singleton and I argued in this 2005 paper about this issue, we are witnessing "the politicization of ICANN and the domain name system" and the birth of a global regulatory body. As Solveig and I noted in our paper, "it recalls nineteenth century attempts to use the Post Office as a tool of censorship (at one point, for example, it was proposed that the federal government should use the Post Office to stop abolitionist literature from being sent through the mails)."
The U.S. government and other governments put heavy pressure on ICANN during this process to reject the .xxx TLD proposal on moral grounds. If ICANN responds to these pressures, as it appears they have done in this case, it calls into question the entity's independence and leads one to wonder if the old fear about ICANN becoming an "FCC for the global Internet" is coming true. In our paper, Solveig and I walk through the potentially disastrous implications of this if such content-related meddling continues with the domain name system.
For these reasons, I believe ICANNâ€™s latest rejection of the .xxx TLD was a serious mistake.