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6/3/2005
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New Domains For Sex Sites Could Foster Greater Legitimacy

Those backing the establishment of a virtual red-light district hope that a .XXX-sponsored top-level domain will help protect children and will spare the porn-averse from such sites while creating incentive for industry participation and self-regulation.

New online real estate will soon be available to pornographers. The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), which oversees the Internet domain name system, said on Wednesday that it entered into negotiations with ICM Registry Inc. to develop terms under which the company will serve as registrar for the newly approved .XXX domain.

Those backing the establishment of this virtual red-light district hope that a .XXX-sponsored top-level domain will help protect children and will spare the porn-averse from such sites while creating incentive for industry participation and self-regulation.

Attorney Parry Aftab, a cybercrime and privacy expert who writes regularly for InformationWeek and was involved in developing the .XXX domain proposal, says that while pornographers, at least in the United States, can't and shouldn't be forced to adopt .XXX domains, they'll find advantages to doing so.

Porn-site operators "are facing merchant account fees [from credit-card companies] that are two to three times higher than anybody else in E-commerce," she says. "By regularizing business practices so that you'll have dispute resolution and appropriate and secure use credit cards--the kinds of things that any E-commerce site would have--we expect that those rates will come down." Customers, in turn, could visit porn sites with less fear of credit-card fraud.

Operating an .XXX domain should also serve as a safe harbor against lawsuits brought under the Truth in Domain Names Act of 2003. The law makes it illegal to knowingly use a misleading domain name with the intent to attract a minor into viewing a visual depiction of sexually explicit conduct on the Internet. A .XXX domain, as an obvious adult site, should demonstrate no deception is intended.

Another advantage for industry participants and customers would be better data-collection practices. "Right now, if you go to a porn site, they sell your name to anybody and everybody," she says. "That's how they make their money. It's a huge part of their business model. But building privacy and security into .XXX sites will play a large part in regularizing that industry."

But for its constant patronage--estimates for annual revenue in the United States range from $8 billion to $12 billion--the adult-content industry is known for being rather irregular. Business practices among porn purveyors have long included spamming, fraudulent or misleading metatags and keywords to dupe search engines, spyware, adware, and just about every other dirty trick imaginable, all in the service of driving traffic and making a buck.

That may change if .XXX domains are widely embraced. "All this does, in effect, is say we now have a giant adult-industry trade association that will set rules that will regularize the business practices of the pornographers," Aftab says. "And the only content issue that's involved is child porn."

The .XXX domain does nothing to alter existing pornography laws. But those operating .XXX domains will be forbidden from using "misleading domain names or domain names intended to attract child-pornography consumers," among other deceptive and disreputable business practices.

Similar arguments have been made with regard to the Can-Spam Act. Supporters of the law argue that it encourages best practices among E-mail marketers. While it's debatable whether spammers have become better behaved since the law took effect, spam remains a problem for most Internet users. A thriving .XXX domain space seems likely to prove equally unsatisfying for concerned parties.

Critics of the new top-level domain worry that child porn is not the only content issue involved. In a post to Carnegie Mellon University computer science professor David Farber's Interesting People E-mail discussion group, privacy advocate Lauren Weinstein wrote, "The creation of dot-ex-ex-ex may set the stage for potentially damaging and disruptive content control and censorship wars that we can hardly even imagine today."

In his blog, Joi Ito, an ICANN board member, chairman of blogging software company Six Apart Japan, and a participant in the Interesting People mailing list, acknowledges concerns about censorship but downplays the issue. "There are people who are concerned about censorship and control," he writes. "These are issues that have been raised, but I think the .XXX proposal is more about creating incentives for legitimate adult entertainment sites to come together and fight 'bad actors' and is not focused on forcing people to use the .XXX domain."

Attorney and author Frederick Lane, who publishes SexBizLaw.com, a legal resource for the adult-entertainment industry, doubts the domain will be widely adopted by adult Webmasters because, he says, they're already wary of being targeted by government prosecutors and they fear being further marginalized.

Lane shares Weinstein's concerns that the establishment of the .XXX domain will lead to broader censorship. "I think there would be a very strong push to move undesirable material into easily identifiable domain names."

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