Now that ICANN has given the nod to a new .XXX top level domain for pornographic web sites, all the old concerns and arguments have risen from the dead.
The most laughable of these is that this is some sort of official sanction for smut or that it "validates" the adult business. That's a quaint, if blinkered, idea. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth.
For those that haven't been paying attention, digital porn predates the web. Early bulletin boards were rife with it and yellowed copies of PC Magazine from the early 80's and 90's featured a surprising number of adult-only BBS service ads.
When the Web arrived to the masses in the mid 90's, I don't imagine that the adult industry saw it as something that would transform the adult business, but it was certainly viewed as yet another adult material transport mechanism. In those early days, many online users had the unfortunate experience of stumbling on blatantly sexual online content. There was no Google back then, just Northern Lights, Alta Vista and Yahoo. People did not begin their Web browsing experience, as they often do today, with a search query. Instead, they used portals and typed in URLs. Interestingly, people didn't know all the URLs for major web sites and so they would enter their best guess. "Whitehouse.com" was one such guess.
For years, that innocuous domain took unsuspecting Web surfers not to the official site for the home of the U.S. President, but to a site filled with pornography (and some political commentary). To get to the official presidential website, you needed to use the ".gov" TLD.
I remember the public outcry over this disastrous bait and switch: parents sitting with kids, trying to teach them about government, only to find themselves in a rather uncomfortable discussion as they tried to explain what those two people were doing on that Web site.
It was right around this time in the mid 1990's that the idea of a special domain for adult sites cropped up, though ICANN didn't really take it up in earnest until 2000. There were already domains from networks, educational institutions, non-profits and countries. Why couldn't "the country of porn" get one of its own?
As expected, many porn purveyors were against it and as recently as 2007, one industry exec, David McKay, told ICANN, "To force us off to a separate part of the internet would be devastating to the industry and to my company in terms of cost, stigma, and the potential for additional regulation of this name space."
More surprising was the opposition from the far right. Some conservative leaders have been quoted arguing that a porn-only domain would only serve to validate the porn industry. In other words, this multi-billion dollar business with thousands of employees, print services, video production operations and its own trade show is not already "validated as an actual business".
This has to be the silliest argument I've ever heard. The constitution of an official TLD for adult material will have no more impact on the validation of the porn industry than a teenage boy picking up his first Playboy.
On the other hand, the ICANN's tentative, "please don't make me do this" approach is equally appalling. Parents, educators and many porn purveyors have been begging for a tool to manage and cordon off material inappropriate for children. Yet, ICANN has repeatedly tried to back away from this debate, as if it was too hot to handle. Now, at least, ICANN is ready to move forward…well, sort of. For now the .XXX domain approval is only conditional, as the ICANN seeks yet more input on the matter.
Even if the.xxx domain goes through, it has no teeth. It is, after all, just a voluntary one. So adult web sites that thrive on accidental search discovery will be able to simply ignore the new domain and stick with ".com". As a result, this weak reed will not be much of a tool in parental control software arsenals. I assume that NetNanny, CyberSitter, Norton Family Online and others will quickly add the .XXX domain to their filters, but it will be with the big caveat: "This will block only those sites that have agreed to use the adult domain."
With that said, if the domain becomes official, adult Web sites start using it and prove that it doesn't destroy their newly validated businesses or in some way censor what they can and can't do, then perhaps others in the adult industry will come to view the .XXX domain as a valuable tool. This, of course assumes too much rationality on all sides.
I fully expect the battle to continue, ICANN to stall, the adult industry to lobby for undoing censorship and the far right to shriek about someone validating something. In the meantime, you'll still be worrying about whether or not you've done enough on your computer to protect your family from things they shouldn't or don't want to see. That's progress for you.
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