August 15, 2005 4:15 PM PDT
Bush administration objects to .xxx domains
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Michael Gallagher, assistant secretary at the Commerce Department, has asked for a hold to be placed on the contract to run the new top-level domain until the .xxx suffix can receive further scrutiny. The domain was scheduled to receive final approval Tuesday.
"The Department of Commerce has received nearly 6,000 letters and e-mails from individuals expressing concern about the impact of pornography on families and children," Gallagher said in a letter that was made public on Monday.
The sudden high-level interest in what has historically been an obscure process has placed the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) in an uncomfortable position. ICANN approved the concept of an .xxx domain in June and approval of ICM Registry's contract to run the suffix was expected this week.
Other governments also have been applying pressure to ICANN in a last-minute bid to head off .xxx. A letter from ICANN's government advisory group sent Friday asks for a halt to "allow time for additional governmental and public policy concerns to be expressed before reaching a final decision."
ICM Registry--the for-profit company in Florida that plans to operate the .xxx registry--has told ICANN it would agree to a month's delay in the approval process to permit it to "address the concerns" raised by the Bush administration and other governments.
"We're focusing our attention on the Department of Commerce and ensuring that we're building this as a voluntary (top-level domain) for responsible companies," Jason Hendeles, founder of ICM Registry, said in a telephone interview on Monday.
Hendeles said that although the .xxx application is "already approved," his company is willing to try to allay fears about legitimizing pornography. "The industry has existed for a long time and is growing internationally and is doing what it can to fight child porn and to be a responsible industry," he said. "This is an opportunity for all the different voices to come together."
ICANN's delicate position
The multinational pressure, unprecedented in ICANN's seven-year history, places the organization in a delicate position. If it backs down, ICANN could be perceived as bowing to political interference--but if not, it could alienate government officials just as the United Nations is becoming more interested in taking over key Internet functions.
ICANN has not said what will happen next. John Jeffrey, ICANN's general counsel, said in an e-mail that "all of this correspondence and any other correspondence received will be given to the board for their consideration relating to this matter."
After ICANN's vote to approve .xxx, conservative groups in the United States called on their supporters to ask the Commerce Department to block the new suffix. The Family Research Council, for instance, warned that "pornographers will be given even more opportunities to flood our homes, libraries and society with pornography through the .xxx domain."
"The volume of correspondence opposed to creation of a .xxx (domain) is unprecedented," according to the Commerce Department's Gallagher. "Given the extent of the negative reaction, I request that the board (provide) adequate additional time for these concerns to be voiced and addressed before any additional action takes place."
Michael Froomkin, a law professor at the University of Miami, said it's not surprising ICANN's board has found itself in a pickle. "They're supposed to be picked for technical competence," Froomkin said. "They're not elected. They're not representative of anything much. Who would pick this group of people to make decisions about how we feel about (domains) with sexual connotations?"
At a recent United Nations summit on the Internet, Brazil's representative charged that ICANN was not responsive enough to the needs of developing countries: "For those that are still wondering what triple-X means, let's be specific, Mr. Chairman. They are talking about pornography. These are things that go very deep in our values in many of our countries. In my country, Brazil, we are very worried about this kind of decision-making process where they simply decide upon creating such new top-level generic domain names."
ICM Registry has proposed that it would handle the technical aspects of running the master database of .xxx sex sites. A second, nonprofit organization called the International Foundation for Online Responsibility would be in charge of setting the rules for .xxx.
ICANN's vote this year represents an abrupt turnabout from the group's earlier stance. In November 2000, the ICANN staff objected to the .xxx domain and rejected ICM Registry's first application.
At the time, politicians lambasted ICANN's move. Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., demanded to know why ICANN didn't approve .xxx "as a means of protecting our kids from the awful, awful filth, which is sometimes widespread on the Internet." Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., told (click for PDF) a federal commission that .xxx was necessary to force adult Webmasters to "abide by the same standard as the proprietor of an X-rated movie theater."
A government report from a few years ago hints that the Bush administration could choose unilaterally to block .xxx from being added to the Internet's master database of domains. The report notes that the Commerce Department has "reserved final policy control over the authoritative root server."
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