The ABCs of .XXX

The US Government is leaning on ICANN to reconsider the XXX domain. This is no way to develop a universal resource

The creation of the .XXX domain as an online home for pornography was never going to pass unremarked in a country where a solitary televised nipple can trigger a nationwide moral stampede. Six thousand concerned letters have been received by the US Department of Commerce, although whether they are against pornography in general or the configuration of the Internet's name servers in particular is not clear. Acknowledging this concern, ICANN has said it will wait for a month to allow more discussion.

This discussion must have the widest possible scope. The legal status of pornography varies hugely around the world, as does its social acceptability within communities. Yet the Internet is most powerful when it is universal and classless. Attempts to impose culturally impelled limitations are not welcome to those who don't share that culture.

It is entirely reasonable to ask for coherent explanations of any such moves, and to expect a logic that goes beyond angry denunciation. In areas where there can be no universal agreement — such as religion, politics, art and sex — any other approach will lead to a place where nothing is allowed that may offend someone, somewhere. It is better to let developments happen and decide when the facts are in.

Those facts are particularly difficult to predict with the .XXX domain, which is the child of very mixed intentions. Is it a place to corral pornography, establishing a virtual red light district that is easy to find if you want it, easy to fence off if you don't? Is it the first step in establishing a regulated area of the Net, or the formation of a libertarian anarchist state? What will happen to the pornography so graphically prominent on every other top level domain? With Google reporting nearly seventy million searches for 'porn' or related terms every day — rather more than six thousand letters — what difference does the domain make anyway?

To find out, we'll have to let it happen. Those who are against pornography will remain free to avoid it, and those who are concerned about the effects on their children will continue to have that responsibility. Those who consume porn may find their searching easier — but reports indicate that this is not an onerous task for the onanistic, even today. It is unlikely to be of practical significance.

Which makes the issue primarily political. In this respect, ICANN's stance should be clear; it stands in charge of the Internet for the whole world, not any political group, and it should behave accordingly. We do not know what partitioning of the Net will result in the greatest good for the greatest number — so trying out ideas is of primary importance, as it is in any exploration of the new. Such a concept may not be easy for those who prefer their world rigorously circumscribed: for those who find freedom exciting, it should come naturally.

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