Let’s talk about X

ICANN debated .xxx yet again at its board meeting in Lisbon last week. (This post has been in draft form for a week already, sorry).

As is now common knowledge (BBC | New York Times), the proposal is dead (for now, and for the foreseeable future). Dot Triple Ex would have been used (obviously) for content of a sexually explicit nature, and the applicant (ICM) would have made some efforts at quality control.

The anti-.xxx folks really puzzled me throughout this process, and I still don’t get it. Most fundamentally, the whole notion of restricting .xxx allocations to ‘responsible’ publishers was developed in response to (frequently hysterical) public and governmental pressure – and then after years of said pressure, the fact that it would be a controlled system becomes the main reason to knock it down. We also saw the deeply unholy alliance of some adult entertainment producers (arguing that .xxx would lead to censorship as it would be easy to police/prevent access to such sites) and conservative religious groups (for reasons that I still don’t understand, arguing that it would mean more (MORE!) pornography on the Web). The US Bush adminstration intervened in opposition to triple x on a number of occasions.

Most people (in my view) seem to be arguing that ICANN ‘doesn’t do content’ and has a technical mandate. Fine. They’re all wrong. ICANN regulates content purely by existing. I thought we killed off this idea that you can divorce technical standards and policies from politics/content regulation/law/etc some time around the 1950s? In a rush to reassure themselves that they were a) protecting the public from the evil porn and b) defending ICANN’s role as being about tech only (anyone spotting the contradiction), the majority of the Board has really confused an already murky situation.

For the record, I don’t have any particular reason to favour the introduction of the new top-level domain. However, I’m motivated to write by the sheer stupidity of much of the objectors.

The three most fundamental (and laughably unaware) objections are as follows:

  1. .xxx = more porn. Anti-porn advocates, however, countered that sites would be free to keep their current “.com” address, in effect making porn more easily accessible by creating yet another channel to house it. (MSNBC 2006). Right, so if I register lexferenda.net I now have doubled my ‘channels’? Come off it. (And yes, I’m aware of landrush/trademark/etc but that is separate to this mysterious extra-domain-means-extra-channel codswallop).
  2. .xxx legitimises pornography. Sure, because if you don’t approve it, all those millions of pages on .com (alongside Google and NBC and Microsoft and even Lex Ferenda) will be delegitimised? Can anyone – anyone – tell me how this works? Please?
  3. Stopping .xxx protects children. I’m delighted to hear that. I presume that since ICANN’s brave decision last week, children sleep safer in their beds? Oops, no. Never mind that much of the explicit content on the Internet is neither targeted at or accessed by minors – and that legislators around the world are doing their utmost to make it harder for under-18s to get access to this sort of content – apparently the fact that no-one can apply for hotstuff.xxx makes things safer for them. Again – maybe it’s just my wee little brain but I just don’t get it.

Worse, still, is the fact that there are some good arguments against .xxx that have been sidelined; Seth Finklestein wrote about this in the Guardian in January, and there’s a fascinating exchange between Kieren McCarthy and Milton Mueller here, touching on concepts of global free expression (and more!) – but that, as always, gets drowned out by an army of Helen Lovejoys.

More from (dissenting Board members) Joi Ito and (especially persuasive) Susan Crawford. Crawford highlights the role of ‘astroturfed’ public comments (Disgusted of Tunbridge.Com, basically), and also discusses the role of governments and others in lobbying on this matter.

If you have the heart, the Board’s transcript can also be read.

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