Charles Arthur: The Geek

Why creating a red-light district on the net won't work
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The Independent Online

I've got a good idea. You know all that online pornography that so upsets politicians and parents? Well, why don't we just get all the porn sites to move to a new web neighbourhood? Rather than polluting the ".com" website names, all the porn could move to websites with the suffix ".xxx". Easy. Then adults would know where to go for "adult" material, and childrens' browsers could be set up so that they would wag an electronic finger at anything ending in "xxx". Brilliant. But, sadly, fatally flawed.

I've got a good idea. You know all that online pornography that so upsets politicians and parents? Well, why don't we just get all the porn sites to move to a new web neighbourhood? Rather than polluting the ".com" website names, all the porn could move to websites with the suffix ".xxx". Easy. Then adults would know where to go for "adult" material, and childrens' browsers could be set up so that they would wag an electronic finger at anything ending in "xxx". Brilliant. But, sadly, fatally flawed.

The fact that this idea has holes that you could drive a truck through isn't stopping ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, the nonprofit group that oversees use of internet domains), from approving it - ".xxx" will take its place alongside .com, .org, .net, etc. The problem is that sex online is a multi-billion-pound industry, and it's not in operators' interests to corral themselves somewhere to which both parents and workplaces can prevent access.

ICANN is proposing that "adult" operators that follow a voluntary code of "industry best practices" such as not exploiting minors will be able to show their wares. But there are flies in the ointment even without the fact that many sex businesses won't want to be there. First, the price of a xxx domain will be $60 - about 10 times higher than for any other suffix. Sure, sex operators will get a little legality, which might stave off attacks from politicians for a while. But, it's not hard to imagine that, before long, you'll be seeing those same politicians and parents who welcomed the creation of ".xxx" fulminating about the sex sites that haven't joined it.

And this is where the problem really starts. How exactly do you define "xxx" content? Is it only the stuff you'd find in a licensed sex shop? And whose license? Globally, tastes and tolerance vary widely. Will membership of .xxx be voluntary? Then it would be foolish to set up site there. Competitors would simply set up shop in sites that wouldn't be blocked by every commercial firewall. On the other hand, if it's compulsory, who's going to round up all the sex sites and move them to xxx-land? Who'll decide the line between "xxx" and, say, FHM magazine online?

I know that the problem of children accessing porn has to be dealt with. But I don't think trying to shove sex to one side is the way to do it on a network used by paying adults. An idea proposed in 2000, but rejected by ICANN, has more merit: a top-level ".kids" domain. It's simple, it makes sense, and is easier to police and to run.

www.charlesarthur.com/blog

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