A woman in our office said that her daughter was watching TV with her father recently when a commercial for Froot Loops prompted the child to want visit the company's Web site. As any literate individual would be likely to do, the girl's father keyed in www.fruitloops.com (instead of the less intuitively spelled brand) and found that the URL had been co-opted by a not terribly child-friendly site. Situations such as this led to the enactment of the Truth in Domain Names Act and have also re-ignited interest in employing a .xxx extension for use by adult-oriented sites.
Back in the 1980s, seven top-level domains (TLDs) were established to subdivide Web addresses into reasonable categories: .com, .edu, .gov, .int, .mil, .net, and .org. Of those seven TLDs, .com, .net, and .org could be used without limitation, while the others required that the organization meet certain criteria. Aside from two-letter country TLDs, these were the only options for Web addresses until 2001. That year, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), the international agency in charge of overseeing TLDs, approved seven new extensions, three of which were restricted (.aero, .coop, and .museum) and four of which were not (.biz, .info, .name, and .pro). Although these seven extensions provide some much needed elbow room on the Internet, they leave out a vast array of possible extensions that could serve some practical—if not legal or ethical, purposes—such as the .xxx extension for use by purveyors of adult content.
Critics and proponents alike have raised strong and valid arguments on either side of the issue, beginning with whether use of such an extension would be voluntary or mandatory. According to Mary Hewitt, director of communications for ICANN, "The .xxx was proposed but did not end up being selected for various reasons. One reason was the difficulty in ascertaining what would qualify as .xxx and would porn operators want to be required to put everything under one name."
It appears that they would not…or, more accurately, that they did not but are reconsidering their position. Bill Lyon, executive director of the Free Speech Coalition (FSC), the largest trade association for the adult entertainment industry, explains why his members have been reluctant to support a .xxx TLD: "FSC has always resisted any attempt to ‘ghettoize' adult entertainment. Yet, because of its diversity, .com would be very difficult to regulate," he says. "It might be much easier to put curbs on a content-based TLD that contained only adult entertainment." Recently, however, the FSC has begun taking informal votes of its members to gauge interest in possibly supporting such a TLD in the future.
Herbert S. Lin, senior scientist at the Computer Science and Telecommunications Board and co-editor of Youth, Pornography, and the Internet (2002) has also questioned the feasibility of regulating adult content on the Internet. "If it is voluntary you won't get all of it—you won't get nearly all of it. If it is forced—who wants to regulate that?" Lin goes on to say, "The motivation for a lot of people is to say, ‘We don't want kids getting pornography so let's filter it out.' But the question is whether you would force adoption of a .xxx extension or not. Let's say it is on a voluntary basis; commercial pornographers go there but a large part of the argument revolves around what you think is pornographic and I don't," he says, citing such sites as those geared towards homosexuality or certain art sites hosted by museums.
Lin foresees practical problems as well, since establishing a .xxx extension does nothing to keep material from children unless used in conjunction with filtering technologies and other barriers. "Home users for the most part aren't buying filters now so why would they begin buying filters after someone added a .xxx extension?" he asks. "That doesn't pass the logic test. Most schools and many libraries already buy filters, so it's not clear what additional protection would be made available."
Although a .xxx extension has not been formally adopted, some companies have begun offering it on their own to interested parties. Domain Name Systems and New.net both began offering a .xxx extension approximately two years ago and Domain Name Systems also offers a .sex extension (some have argued that a .sex TLD would make more sense than a .xxx TLD). According to Dan Sheehy, CEO of New.net the response has been largely positive. "We've been pleased with the response since we released the .xxx domain name extension over two years ago, both by the public as well as companies in the adult entertainment industry" Sheehy says. "The name continues to be one of our more popular extensions and a popular choice for adult content providers looking for a memorable Web address."
Others don't see much benefit to an unofficial extension. "I don't see that there's much advantage to an unofficial .xxx top-level domain," says Lin. "Using a non-official way to do this is likely to make it hard to access a site using .xxx from certain other domains, and then who would adopt .xxx voluntarily?" Lyon echoes similar sentiments, saying, "For the most part, [companies offering .xxx extensions] have been ignored. Companies have worked hard to build their brands relative to .com. They don't want to needlessly go through the process again in a new domain."
Sheehy does not seem optimistic about the possibility of ICANN approving a .xxx extension in the near future. "Given the fact that ICANN has already approved the release of seven new extensions…I think it's unlikely that an adult-specific TLD would be given consideration," he says. "Additionally, because of the connotations that such a name carries, I think it would be more likely for ICANN to approve the release of a less politically contentious name."
Only time will tell what the future holds for a .xxx TLD, but with the support of some powerful political players like Senator Joseph Lieberman (D-CT) the debate is far from over.
(www.domainnamesystems.com; www.freespeechcoalition.com; www.icann.org; www.new.net)