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Construction on Online Back Alley Halted

The Associated Press
Friday, March 30, 2007; 7:45 PM

LISBON, Portugal -- A key Internet oversight agency put the brakes on plans to construct an online red-light district, rejecting for a third time a proposal to create a voluntary ".xxx" address for pornographic Web sites.

The board of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers on Friday cited fears that it would find itself having to regulate content and concerns that such a domain name did not have the support of the adult-entertainment industry.

"So the proposal is effectively rejected, and it is my understanding that as a consequence of this vote, we will not accept any further proposals" on the domain name in the current round of applications, ICANN Chairman Vinton Cerf said after the 9-5 vote. One member, ICANN Chief Executive Paul Twomey, abstained.

The company seeking the domain name, ICM Registry LLC, had been allowed to revise a previously rejected proposal. Although ICANN wants to close the current round, which began in 2004, a new proposal could be offered in the next round of applications.

And ICM's president and chief executive, Stuart Lawley, said a lawsuit against ICANN was likely over the rejected bid.

A few ICANN board members criticized their own agency as being too timid to tread toward controversial ideas.

Susan Crawford, a board member who backed the ".xxx" domain name, said the Internet's success grew out of a principle that the network should be open to anyone or anything as long as it isn't illegal or harmful.

"In a nutshell, everything not prohibited is permitted," Crawford said.

Crawford, a professor at Yeshiva University's Cardozo Law School in New York, said no applicant "could ever demonstrate unanimous, cheering approval for its application."

Other board members, however, said the level of support for ICM's proposal was a factor, along with concern that ICANN could find itself in the tricky role of deciding or managing what content would have been appropriate for the new Internet address.

"This application doesn't meet the request for proposals mainly on the supporting community," said board member Raimundo Beca of Chile, who voted against the domain. The adult industry, he added, "has been from the very beginning so split about this."

Porn sites opposed to ".xxx" were largely concerned that the domain name, while billed as voluntary, would make it easier for governments to later mandate its use and push sexual content into what the adult-entertainment industry terms an online ghetto.

ICM, which had planned to charge $60 per ".xxx" name, had vowed to fight any government effort to compel its use and cited preregistrations of more than 76,000 names as evidence of support.

"We are extremely disappointed by the board's action today," Lawley said. "It is not supportable for any of the reasons articulated by the board, ignores the rules ICANN itself adopted for (new domains) and makes a mockery of ICANN bylaws' prohibition of unjustifiable discriminatory treatment."

Religious groups worried that ".xxx" would legitimize and expand the number of adults sites, which more than a third of U.S. Internet users visit each month, according to comScore Media Metrix.

Focus on the Family lauded the decision, noting that from "the very beginning this idea held out false hope for parents concerned with filth on the Internet," said Daniel Weiss, a senior analyst for media and sexuality.

"It's a strange notion to suggest that we can help kids by sanctioning, endorsing and proliferating the very material that threatens them", he said.

But U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, a Louisiana Democrat, chastised ICANN for not approving the domain name.

"These top-level domain names are the first signal to parents as to what their children are viewing online," she said. "For example, when we see '.gov' we know we are visiting a government agency, and '.edu' tells us an educational institution is about to appear. Yet, ICANN continues to turn its back on child protection by refusing to take similar steps to make harmful content as readily identifiable."

Given its voluntary nature, ".xxx" wasn't unlikely to have much effect on parents' ability to block porn sites. And because a domain name serves merely as an easy-to-remember moniker for a site's actual numeric Internet address, even if its use is required, a child could simply punch in the numeric address of any blocked ".xxx" name.

Lawley, however, said sites using ".xxx" would have been required to label themselves based on such criteria as the presence of nudity and whether it is in an artistic or educational context. Filters could check the labels even if a child were to try to bypass domain name-specific controls.

Nearly all of the board members opposing the domain cited concerns about content regulation, while supporters said ICANN should not block new domains over fears like that.

"I think that this _ what this should alert us to is that we have a much higher, bigger problem that we need to be discussing, and I hope that conversation doesn't end here," board member Joichi Ito said.

Lawley added that "the part of the contract they are now claiming would lead them to content management was put in by them during the contract negotiations."


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