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On the Horns of the .XXX Dilemma

I was in Lisbon last week when ICANN’s board voted to reject a new .XXX domain that would have been dedicated for adult entertainment (porn, that is).

ICANN is going to take a lot of heat for this decision, but this heat isn’t going to shed much light on the agonizing questions that .XXX raised about the future of internet governance.  To put it simply, the board of ICANN saw a future where ICANN could be drawn into a role of content regulation, and they blinked.

I blinked, too, once I began talking about the .XXX dilemma with other parents who are concerned about the easy access to pornography on the web.  Some (including my wife) feel that .XXX would make porn even more pervasive, since it would legitimize the industry and be a magnet for curious kids.   Others think a dedicated domain like .XXX will make filtering much more effective. 

I’ve thought about how to reconcile these opposing positions from parents similarly motivated to shield their kids from porn.  This divergence in views stems from what you think the global porn industry and governments would do if a dedicated adult domain were created.

If you thought all porn providers would move their content to .XXX—whether voluntarily or because of new laws—then you’d favor the new domain since you could easily filter-out any .XXX sites.   But nobody really believes that would happen.  Plenty of porn would still be available in other domains, from providers that weren’t inclined or required to follow new labeling laws.

At that point, anti-porn parents and governments with labeling laws would clamor for new enforcement measures, pressing ICANN to force porn content into its designated domain.   Free speech advocates would pressure ICANN from the other side, putting ICANN in an impossible squeeze play. 

The .XXX domain presented a no-win decision for ICANN, who will now be hit with criticism from free speech advocates and perhaps a lawsuit from the company that worked so hard on the .XXX proposal.   

While .XXX alone was not likely to corral online porn, subsequent government action would very likely draw ICANN into bullfights over content regulation. There’s just no way to straddle the horns of that dilemma.  And ICANN picked the horn that looked less lethal to the future of private sector management of the domain name system.