ICANN Reverses Course on ‘.XXX’ Domain

Raising the possibility that it will change course once again on a hotly debated move meant to give adult content Web sites their own Internet realm, the net’s governing body has decided to shelve a plan to discuss how to create a “.xxx” domain.

The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) had intended to discuss how to proceed with putting the new top level domain, or TLD, into place at its meeting this week in Vancouver, B.C. The group’s board had previously given the domain its initial blessing.

But the group now says it will delay the discussion so that leaders can have time to review a 350-page report that includes feedback from various sources on the creation of the domain.

The decision marks the second time since late summer that ICANN has postponed the debate on how to finalize the new domain, which some argue would help to steer children and others clear of adult material but others fear would become an online red light district and the start of attempts to censor free speech online.

If ICANN reverses directions — and it reportedly faces pressure from both the U.S. and European Union governments to do so — it would mark just the latest about-face on the proposed domain. In 2000, ICANN voted not to establish “.xxx,” a decision that had stood until this August, when the domain was given preliminary approval.

Never Mind

ICANN Chairman Vint Cerf announced that the domain, which had been slated to be the first item up for discussion at the governmental advisory committee (GAC) this week, was being tabled for the time being. Though reviewing the report was the reason given, many critics expressed skepticism, noting that the review has been available since late August.

That was around the time that ICANN announced it would enter into “commercial and technical negotiations” with ICM Registry about establishing a TLD that would bear the suffix .xxx.

ICM has argued that with online pornography now a US$3 billion annual business with at least 1 million related domains, a formal location for such sites makes sense. ICM estimates that as much as 10 percent of all Web traffic is tied to adult sites.

The original decision not to have a “.xxx” suffix came because ICANN felt that segregating such sites could raise privacy and free speech issues, since governments that have the ability to subpoena Internet records could track who was visiting such sites with ease.

The reversal led to concerns that a new wave of cybersquatting — the practice of registered domain names that would logically belong to others — with everyone from major corporations to high-profile individuals at risk to have a “.xxx” domain created in their name.

People For Internet Responsibility founder Lauren Weinstein said the decisions on the top level domain are symptomatic of larger issues within ICANN.

“This organization continues to make major decisions without significant, broad public input or debate,” Weinstein said.

Weinstein said ICANN’s original argument against the adult domain made sense. The reversal, by contrast “is an atrocious decision.”

“The domain will be voluntary, at least at first,” he said, “but these efforts are a slippery slope likely leading to widespread filtering and censoring by ISPs, governments, plus a broad range of other entities, affecting a lot more than merely pornographic materials.”

Get in Line

ICANN has had its hands full lately dealing with a number of flare-ups as it tries to keep its various constituencies — including domain registrars and members of the Internet-using public — happy with how it conducts business.

ICANN rebutted an effort to have control of the Web domain structure turned over to a more diverse, international body, something that many foreign governments continue to call for, since ICANN itself was formed by the U.S. Department of Commerce, which retains arm’s-length control.

This week, the group was hit with two lawsuits over its recent settlement with VeriSign, a deal that gives that company control of the “.com” and “.net” domains through 2012 and one that critics, including independent domain resellers, say will drive up domain registration costs for Web site owners.

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