Sexy content may get dedicated home in cyberspace

Negotiations for .xxx domain resurface, following a study that found more children view porn inadvertently

A controversial proposal to create a special domain for pornographic content on the Internet -- dubbed the .xxx domain -- appears to be gaining momentum after years of on-again, off-again negotiations with the Internet's technical coordinating body.

Public comments about the latest proposal for the .xxx domain are due Monday to the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), which oversees the creation of domain name extensions.

ICANN has received more than 500 e-mail comments for and against the .xxx domain during the last four weeks.

The .xxx top-level domain would create a dedicated area of the Internet for sexually explicit material. The .xxx domain would be voluntary, meaning that existing pornographic Web sites in .com or other domains wouldn't be required to switch to the .xxx domain.

Many religious groups oppose the .xxx domain because they fear it will lead to a proliferation of online porn. Also in opposition are some operators of pornographic Web sites, who say the .xxx domain will segregate adult content and lead to governmental regulation. Supporters say the proposal will make it easier to filter online porn because all .xxx content will be appropriately labeled.

"There's been a lot of mixed messages sent by ICANN over the years, but I think we're going to get .xxx this time," says Bret Fausett, a partner with Cathcart Collins, a Los Angeles law firm, and the author of the popular ICANN Blog. "I bet it gets approved before the second quarter of 2007."

ICM Registry, a U.S. start-up created to operate the .xxx domain, first proposed a dedicated domain for sexually explicit material to ICANN in October 2000. However, ICANN deemed this proposal too controversial and approved seven other domains instead including .biz and .info.

In March 2004, ICM Registry resubmitted its idea for a .xxx domain among a group of sponsored top-level domains that would be restricted to particular industries or groups. The ICM Registry teamed with Afilias, a provider of back-end domain name registry services, on this proposal. Since then, ICANN has approved several other sponsored top-level domains including .travel and .jobs.

In June 2005, the ICANN board directed its staff to enter into business and technical negotiations with ICM for the creation of a .xxx domain. However, in May 2006 the ICANN board rejected the .xxx registry agreement that the ICANN staff and ICM proposed.

ICM and the ICANN staff renegotiated the agreement, which was posted on Jan. 5, 2007 and discussed by the ICANN board at its January meeting. The new ICM Registry agreement includes prohibitions against child pornography and mandates machine-readable meta-tagging of content.

"We have a requirement for anybody in the .xxx domain to put on their sites machine-readable meta-tags that will make filtering easier," says Stuart Lawley, CEO of ICM Registry. "We have asked the Internet Content Rating Association to produce a specific tag for adult content."

The ICANN board is expected to consider the latest public comments and revised .xxx registry agreement soon.

The next ICANN meeting is scheduled for March 26-30 in Lisbon, Portugal.

Lawley says he has no idea when the ICANN board will make a final decision about the .xxx domain. "It should have been done two or three years ago," he says.

Lawley says the ICM Registry has received tens of thousands of pre-registrations for .xxx names from operators of pornographic Web sites.

"`We've received more than twice our original forecast in pre-registrations since last May," Lawley says. "This leads us to believe that we will have many hundreds of thousands of names registered when we go live."

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