Business

Lawmakers Seek to Revive ‘.XXX’ Domain Plan

Seeking to help protect children from the seedier side of the Web, some U.S. lawmakers are hoping to reignite interest in creating a “.xxx” domain where pornographic and adult content would be concentrated.

Introduced late last week, the “Cyber Safety for Kids Act of 2006” would force the Department of Commerce to work with the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) on fast-tracked development of a domain exclusively for content aimed at adults.

Gaining Back Momentum

Senators Mark Pryor of Arkansas and Max Baucus of Montana, both Democrats, introduced the bill, hoping to revive a plan that won some initial approvals from ICANN last year but sputtered in the face of opposition from various corners, including the White House.

“While the Internet is an exceptional learning tool, it allows children the same easy access to Web sites about space shuttles as it does for pornography,” Pryor said. “Turning a blind eye to this problem has allowed the online pornography industry to expand and enabled kids to view adult content at very young ages.”

Pryor said he believes all adult-themed sites should be required to have a “.xxx” domain, which would make it vastly easier for parents to monitor and control where their children go online.

“By corralling pornography in its own domain, our bill provides parents with the ability to create a ‘do not enter zone’ for their kids,” he said.

ICANN itself has been mulling an online red light district on and off for nearly six years, with the idea first floated in 2000, only to be rejected by the group on grounds that it would impede free speech and because of privacy concerns.

Penalties Included

Unlike the proposal floated by ICANN, however, the domain envisioned by the lawmakers would be mandatory, with the bill calling for penalties and fines against porn sites that do move onto the adult domain within six months.

Pryor cited Kaiser Family Foundation survey data showing that 90 percent of kids aged 8 to 16 have seen pornography online, many encountering it accidentally while doing homework or online research. The sheer volume of porn-related Web sites, now estimated at around 400 million, also makes it a necessity, he argued.

ICANN moved to within a few procedural votes of approving a triple-X domain last year, giving initial approval to the idea in June of 2005, a decision that sparked some outcry about freedom of speech and one that critics were quick to point out reversed an earlier ICANN decision not to institute such a domain.

In December, however, ICANN seemed to change tracks again, basically shelving the plan for the domain by not voting to advance it to the stage where it negotiated a technical and financial agreement for a third party to run the new domain.

Instead, ICANN said at the time it wanted to give board members time to digest a 350-page report on the domain and indefinitely postponed any additional action. ICM Registry has made a formal proposal to establish and run the “.xxx” top level domain, or TLD, saying it would work with family groups to determine which sites the domain should contain.

Opposition Arises

Opposition from conservative groups was largely seen responsible for killing the ICANN .xxx push, with the Bush White House among those weighing in against the plan. By including the mandatory shifting into the new domain, lawmakers may be able to address the demands of family groups that want the Web cleaned up and free speech groups who want to ensure that pornographers do not have their rights to display their content abridged.

That coalition-building approach did not sway some, however. The Free Speech Coalition, a group that represents the interests of the adult entertainment industry, immediately called on Congress to block the bill, saying it would not protect children in any substantial way and result in the “Ghettoization of protected free speech.”

“Our original concern was that Congress would make the content-based segregation of speech on the Internet mandatory, and that concern has been borne out by this bill,” said FSC director Michelle L. Freridge.

That group believes an opposite approach — creating a “.KIDS” TLD where only child-friendly content could be kept would be a far more enforceable and fair approach to the same problem.

Protecting children online has become a common cause among many lawmakers on both sides of the aisle as well as regulators. The Justice Department’s recent efforts to obtain search records and domain site lists from Google was driven by investigators who want to shore up their argument in favor of a online child-protection law that the U.S. Supreme Court has suggested may not pass Constitutional muster.

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