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A Hot Domain on Ice

It's easy to find porn on the Net. Yet those who wanted to make it even easier just suffered a big setback, and the EU is none too pleased about it.

The nonprofit Internet Corporation for Assigned Names & Numbers (ICANN) holds sway over Web addresses and domain names, such as .com and .net. Under continued pressure from the U.S., ICANN has further delayed plans to create a .xxx domain. "The Board resolved that ICANN...should analyze all publicly received inputs and continue negotiations," ICANN said in a statement summarizing late-March meetings held in Wellington, New Zealand.

HANDS OFF. Some members of the international community are incensed. They say the decision, which leaves the .xxx domain in bureaucratic limbo, is a sign the U.S. is letting domestic politics influence the day-to-day operation of the Internet. "It takes away from the credibility of the argument that the U.S. is in favor of a free Internet," says Martin Selmayr, a spokesperson for the European Union's Commission for Information Society & Media. "It's a question of morality -- [and] we should not discriminate."

Support for the creation of a special designation for adults-only Internet sites gathered steam last year. Florida entrepreneur Stuart Lawley proposed .xxx as a way to make money from providing registration services to porn sites. Proponents also see it as a way of fostering competition for domain names, creating alternatives to such popular designations as .com. Some Democrats in the U.S. Senate also say having a .xxx domain would help the government do a better job regulating and filtering Internet porn.

ATTRACTING ATTENTION. Conservative religious groups, on the other hand, see it simply as a way to more easily call up online smut and say it would breed the creation of more Web porn. On Aug. 11, then-Commerce Dept. Assistant Secretary Michael D. Gallagher wrote to ICANN citing thousands of angry letters on the subject and requesting that Icann hold off on approving the name.

At the Wellington meeting, the decision was further delayed. Member countries on the Government Advisory Committee want more detail on what applicants would do to protect children from sites with the .xxx name. Beyond that, the meeting communiqué says "several members of the GAC are emphatically opposed from a public policy perspective to the introduction of a .xxx [top-level domain]" name. Those members were the U.S., Iran, Indonesia, and Australia, says a person familiar with the matter.

Some say the creation of .xxx won't have a big impact on the average Net user. It wouldn't alter the addresses of existing .com pornography Web sites. And aside from a higher registration fee to reserve a .xxx domain name, the sites would look the same as any other adult site. "Domain names themselves hardly matter anymore," says Jonathan Zittrain, professor of Internet governance and regulation at Oxford. "We get to where we are going with search engines anyway. It's a largely symbolic battle."

Nations concerned about U.S. hegemony over the Internet disagree. ICANN is under the direct oversight of the U.S. Commerce Dept. While it is a privately-held nonprofit organization and has an international advisory committee, the U.S. has ultimate control over the naming of Internet domains, including those of webmasters from other countries.

WHO MAKES THE RULES? Several EU nations and developing countries have advocated putting ICANN within the jurisdiction of an international body like the UN when its current arrangement expires next September. A Commerce Dept. spokesman says the agency's oversight is the best way to "ensure the continued stability and security of the Internet," though he declines to discuss the agency's plans for ICANN. "I can't address the future of ICANN at this time," he says.

Meantime, international concerns over U.S. influence are likely to simmer. EU representatives don't want U.S. domestic politics setting the agenda for what is ultimately a global Internet.

"We consider it as a political intervention in the day-to-day management of the Internet," Selmayr says. And parties on all sides of the .xxx debate, at least for now, will have to keep looking for porn on the Web the old fashioned way—under a different domain.

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