February 15, 2019

ICANN Says No to .xxx

Susan Crawford reports that the ICANN board has voted not to proceed with creation of the .xxx domain. Susan, who is on ICANN’s board but voted against the decision, calls it a “low point” in ICANN’s history.

[Background: ICANN is a nonprofit organization that administers the Domain Name System (DNS), which translates human-readable Internet names like “www.freedom-to-tinker.com” into the numeric IP addresses like 192.168.1.4 that are actually used by the Internet Protocol. Accordingly, part of ICANN’s job is to decide on the creation and management of new top-level domains like .info, .travel, and so on.]

ICANN had decided, some time back, to move toward a .xxx domain for adult content. The arrangements for .xxx seemed to be ready, but now ICANN has pulled the plug. The reason, apparently, is that the ICANN board was worried that ICM, the company that would have run .xxx, could not ensure that sites in the domain complied with all applicable laws. Note that this is a different standard than other domain managers would have to meet – nobody expects the managers of .com to ensure, proactively, that .com sites obey all of the national laws that might apply to them. And of course we all know why the standard was different: governments are touchy about porn.

Susan argues that the .xxx decision is a departure from ICANN’s proper role.

ICANN’s mission is to coordinate the allocation of domain names and numbers, while preserving the operational stability, reliability, and global interoperability of the Internet. The vision of a non-governmental body managing key (but narrow) technical coordination functions for the Internet remains in my view the approach most likely to reflect the needs of the Internet community.

[…]

I am not persuaded that there is any good technical-competency or financial-competency reason not to [proceed with .xxx].

The vision here is of ICANN as a technocratic standard-setter, not a policy-maker. But ICANN, in setting the .xxx process in motion, had already made a policy decision. As I wrote last year, ICANN had decided to create a top-level domain for adult content, when there wasn’t one for (say) religious organizations, or science institutes. ICANN has put itself in the position of choosing which kinds of domains will exist, and for what purposes. Here is Susan again:

ICANN’s current process for selecting new [top-level domains], and the artificial scarcity this process creates, continues to raise procedural concerns that should be avoided in the future. I am not in favor of the “beauty contest” approach taken by ICANN thus far, which relies heavily on relatively subjective and arbitrary criteria, and not enough on the technical merits of the applications. I believe this subjective approach generates conflict and is damaging to the technically-focused, non-governmental, bottom-up vision of ICANN activity. Additionally, both XXX and TEL raise substantial concerns about the merits of continuing to believe that ICANN has the ability to choose who should “sponsor” a particular domain or indeed that “sponsorship” is a meaningful concept in a diverse world. These are strings we are considering, and how they are used at the second level in the future and by whom should not be our concern, provided the entity responsible for running them continues to comply with global consensus policies and is technically competent.

We need to adopt an objective system for the selection of new [top-level domains], through creating minimum technical and financial requirements for registries. Good proposals have been put forward for improving this process, including the selection of a fixed number annually by lottery or auction from among technically-competent bidders.

One wonders what ICANN was thinking when it set off down the .xxx path in the first place. Creating .xxx was pretty clearly a public policy decision – though one might argue about that decision’s likely effects, it was clearly not a neutral standards decision. The result, inevitably, was pressure from governments to reverse course, and a lose-lose choice between losing face by giving in to government pressure, on the one hand, and ignoring governments’ objections and thereby strengthening the forces that would replace ICANN with some kind of government-based policy agency, on the other.

We can only hope that ICANN will learn from its .xxx mistake and think hard about what it is for and how it can pursue its legitimate goals.

Comments

  1. Ed,
    That’s a good point. I don’t think I ever thought of it that way. All along I’ve thought that the debate(no matter which side you were on) was somewhat stupid, but this is the first time I’ve heard anyone even suggest that the debate shouldn’t have happened at all. Most people are either on the side of government not regulating ICANN at all, or on the side saying that the government must do more to stop porn and the .xxx domain somehow legitimizes porn. That ICANN shouldn’t have tried to create the domain in the first place is something no one on either side has considered.

  2. MathFox says:

    I think that there is a very good reason to have an .xxx top level domain and move all the adult sites there: It makes it easier for an individual web user to restrict his surfing to “safe” sites. OTOH it also eases censoring.
    As a Dutchman I am still wondering why the USians make such a fuss about human sex (and consequently porn and abortion); the 298 million Americans are sufficient proof that sex is a common American activity.

  3. Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t it the case that once a proper domain application was submitted, by the rent-seekers behind .XXX (ICM), then ICANN had to make a decision on the application? So this mess wasn’t *ICANN*’s idea.

    FYI, my view is that the XXX domain is a boondoggle

  4. You don’t need a top level domain for that. You could do that same by having ‘xxx.’ instead of ‘www.’

  5. MathFox said: “I think that there is a very good reason to have an .xxx top level domain and move all the adult sites there: It makes it easier for an individual web user to restrict his surfing to “safe” sites. OTOH it also eases censoring.”

    You are right, if they were all on one domain, it would be easier to filter. The problem is, how do you force all of the porn sites onto the same domain? Furthermore, who gets to decide what is “porn” and what is not? The definition of porn varies radically from one culture to another. In some Latin American countries a woman in a bikini(even a modest one) is considered porn, while here in the US it isn’t. So again, who gets to decide what is “porn”, and which country gets to enforce it? If filtering porn is the reason for the xxx domain, then the xxx domain is pointless.
    Of course, I also think that those people who were so against it were also fighting a pointless battle. Porn already exists and is very common all over the net. An xxx domain would not make it any more common, or easy to find. So fighting the creation of an xxx domain seems pointless. There are much better and more productive battles to fight if you want to fight against porn.

  6. Richard says:

    Jamie said:
    >Porn already exists and is very common all over the net. An xxx domain would not make it any more common, or easy to find.

    In fact, it would also fail to segregate it or make it more scarce. There is no reason for a commercial porn site to move FROM a “non-porn” domain like .com, potentially freeing up sites with vaguely suggestive names for non-porn uses. More likely, porn-site operators would all set up duplicate sites to catch more traffic. Believing that a dedicated top-level domain would free up the other domains from porn is merely self-delusion.

  7. Dumb question:

    Why top level domains, at all?

    Why bother distinguishing between .edu and .com and .org and .gov and .net?

    It’s positively misleading. I recall a number of years ago, some company wishing to market to university students bought up a ton of .com domains, presumably hoping to capitalize on user’s confusion. And I’m sure we all recall the whitehouse.com farce.

    Ok, I don’t expect to run into any porn pages when I go to a .gov site, but beyond that there is very little I can infer about the legitimacy, ownership or content of a site, based simply on its domain.

  8. Actually, I think porn has appeared on .gov sites as well — for, well, evidence in court cases involving porn.

    The xxx domain is a bad idea:

    It gives school kids another puzzle to solve by breaking through their school’s or library’s internet filter.

    IP addresses can be used to get around filters based on .xxx.

    There is no way to draw the line on porn. Anatomical pictures and “dirty” words used for educational purposes might be considered porn, and might even vary depending on “viewer intent”. Should they be forced into .xxx, thereby forcing all viewers who want that information into .xxx?

    There are too many legal jurisdictions to enforce this uniformly. Would ICANN become the judge of what belongs in .xxx, and fine or revoke the domains of anyone caught using it in a non-xxx TLD?

  9. leek wrote: “The xxx domain is a bad idea:

    It gives school kids another puzzle to solve by breaking through their school’s or library’s internet filter.”

    Giving school kids puzzles to solve might lead to smarter and more capable graduates. I don’t see anything wrong with that. Especially if you’re thinking specifically American; America’s losing its high tech lead to Japan as we speak. It would benefit America to have its school kids having incentives to solve tricky networking-related problems and thus increase the number of high-tech-competent graduates down the road.

  10. Ned Ulbricht says:

    Why top level domains, at all?

    Why bother distinguishing between .edu and .com and .org and .gov and .net?

    Short answer: ccTLDs

    Longer answer: iiuc, DNS was originally expected to take advantage of a deeper hierarchy in order to scale better. The current flat state of .com is not considered especially desirable, although increases in processing power and bandwidth have kept gTLD resolution stable.

  11. Ned Ulbricht says:

    Excuse me. Should have said that increases in processing power and bandwidth have maintained stability for resolution of second level domains within the gTLDs.

  12. XXX domain is very bad idea, IMHO.

  13. Seth points out that ICANN had to make a decision, since ICM submitted an application.

    So, it’s clear that ICANN needs to have -some- kind of policy in place, either to handle applications or to not allow applications in the first place.

    Until I understand how the Internet community (eg. users and domain registrants) from new TLDs, I see no reason to allow new applications. Currently all I see is benefit for registries and registrars.

    Regarding .xxx, I’m glad it was shelved, but sad that it was shelved for poor reasons.

  14. Perhaps off-topic — I recently went to http://www.usps.gov to look up rate information, and was surprised to find myself being redirected to the usps.com domain.

  15. On .xxx, my first thought when reading about this (after convincing myself it was not a joke message) was how in the world they want to force porn out of all other domains, before even considering “subtleties” like who can possibly miss the (technical?) issue of constructing a verifiable definition of what porn, or for that matter, “adult content” is.

  16. PhantomX says:

    This is so stupid! They make such a huge fuss over the nude form of the human body (god only knows why….). So wouldn’t it make sense to put all this crap under .xxx. This way you can’t trick people into clicking adult sites since there is sometimes no way to tell what the site contains otherwise. Also easy for parents who can’t be bothered supervising their kids can add a filter to block all these sites. Simple solution. But no. They have to do it the hard way!

    As for the confusion over the definition of porn? Gimme a break. It’s pretty obvious isn’t it? People with no clothes and/or having sex with each other. That’s it, plain and simple!

  17. I’m still as baffled as ever as to understanding who actually wanted this? Who started the process?

    Seriously. Conservatives didn’t like the idea of legitimizing and seeming to promote porn. Liberals didn’t like the fact it could be used as a censorship tool. The porn industry was arguing against it…

    What individuals and/or groups do we have to thank for this whole mess?

  18. It seems to me like it would have been a good compromise. Perhaps that way people that don’t want porn censored could have that allowed on their computers, but people who do want it censored would have any xxx sites blocked. I wish it would have happened!

  19. And what, pray tell, would have operated to confine the porn to .xxx?

  20. ICANN not going ahead with the domain because there are some grey areas is a blatant cop-out. True there are some grey areas; those can be worked out as time progresses. There are also BLACK and WHITE areas. Some, no, MOST porn is very identifiable as porn. Searches for breast cancer that results in ‘big breast’ porn sites is ridiculous especially because we can stop it.
    To the argument that the creation of this domain endorses porn is simply ignorant. It seems porn exists with or without ICANN endorsement. SEX/PORN has been the first group to use most technological (communications) advancements. This has been true since before the telephone – ever here of call girls?
    NOT doing anything because some kids could potentially get around the blocking mechanisms is rubbish to boot. If a kid is looking at porn I’d rather them have to come up with some crazy way of looking at it than just click …. click and they are there. It seems that’s how it is now anyways.
    There is no reason that ICANN needs a 100% fail-safe policy now. It needs to start somewhere – it will not be 100% even if it is claimed to be. Start by advertising to the porn industry that this new domain is available – they will get some sites no problem – and continue to develop (along with say net-nanny and such groups) software for the public. I am tired of seeing the male attraction to visual sexual stimuli attacked every time someone goes to use a computer. It will be the same for every young child growing up with computers unless something is done… at this point nothing substantial is being done…. be smart and push for the enforcement of this domain.

  21. Anonymous says: