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Analysis: If the internet is to get a red-light district, governments will have to put on their jackboots

Analysis: If the internet is to get a red-light district, governments will have to put on their jackboots

It’s taken 10 years, but internet address regulators have finally taken the first step towards establishing .xxx, a top-level domain name intended to replace the use of .com for adult websites. If that domain is to make it into actual use, various national governments are first going to have to steamroll faith groups. And if it is to work as those governments hope, they’ll have to get pretty totalitarian about regulating the flesh business.

There is no real technical impediment to creating a new top-level domain name to compete with the likes of .com or .org at the end of website addresses. What has held back the creation of .xxx has, instead, been a bun fight between a dizzying number of fluid factions made up of online companies ranging from web hosts to filtering providers, national and multilateral regulators, civil society interests groups (most of them churches) and what passes for the organised pornography industry. Finally, after more than a decade of wrangling, on Friday the Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (Icann) approved in principal the creation of the .xxx domain, subject to some further consultation.

The idea is almost as simple as the technical implementation. Since 2000, domain name registration company ICM has maintained it can make a profit from selling names ending in .xxx (such as to websites featuring explicit content. That would be in keeping with the original organisational principle of domain names, which sought to group all commercial companies under .com, non-profits under .org, and so on, which was established partially to allow a visitor to immediately recognise the nature of the website visited. Surely, ICM argued, it would make sense to give one of the biggest online sectors its own home in the same way?

That depends on where you stand, as it turns out. Parts of the vast online pornography ecosystem welcomed the idea; those why try to maintain honest and ethical services, typically, and end up fighting a never-ending battle to give parents the ability to prevent children from accessing any part of their sites. Some online providers also liked the idea, because it would allow them to offer different value-added services (a “full frontal” package, for instance, as opposed to a “family friendly” service, each charged at a premium). And a varying number of governments and anti-pornography groups likewise backed the idea, on the basis that it would be much easier to filter out pornography once it is ghettoised.

On the other side of the issue stands a downright unholy, accidental alliance. Some pornography companies – often, though not exclusively, those who run borderline or plain illegitimate businesses – are worried about what the future could hold once .xxx exists. Aligned with them are those pressure groups that believe pornography has no place anywhere, least of all online, should be banned outright in all its forms, and that creating a special top-level domain will only further legitimise it.

What everyone both pro and con anticipate, though they’re often loathe to say as much, is ambitious regulation by national governments. The .xxx domain will be reserved for pornography and related content, but that doesn’t mean such sites will be precluded from using .com. It is unlikely that the Icann will even think about trying to impose such a rule; if it does try its luck, it will find a huge amount of legal trouble coming its way; and in the improbable event that it can overcome the legal hurdles, it would be damn close to impossible to police such an exclusion.

Those who have the power to compel the use of the .xxx domain are national governments. In theory. South Africa is potentially a good example. We have a Parliament tending towards the conservative “think of the children” approach so beloved by US politicians, but a Constitution that will make it difficult on various fronts to ban online pornography outright. Reasonable regulation is a different matter, however, and requiring websites with sexual content to identify themselves as such by using .xxx or a local variant such as could be reasonable enough to pass muster. Once you’ve migrated all adult websites to their ghetto homes, blocking, filtering and monitoring them becomes a heck of a lot easier.

In theory. In reality there are a number of problems with that idea. It would require international buy-in and co-operation on a scale we’ve never seen before. It would require a jackboot approach to the vast swathes of the online pornography trade that engage in mundane illegal behaviour like copyright violation and misleading advertising, never mind the dark-side operators where the extreme fetishists play well outside the law. It would, to be blunt, be impossible – but trying to shovel back the tide would be just the kind of mega-project some politicians would latch on to.

First, though, they’d have to convince those church groups that they are trying to squelch the online skin trade rather than create a protected playground where it can flourish.

Right now those church groups are mobilising behind campaigns intended to prevent the .xxx domain from making it into reality. You can expect them to grow louder and more vociferous in coming months – while the politicians lurk in the background, afraid to nail their colours to the mast before things settle down a bit. Then, if they sense the public mood is in favour of stern action, will come the crackdown. Or at least an attempt at one.

By Phillip de Wet

Read more: Icann statement on .xxx (PDF), ABC, New York Times, ZDNet


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