opinion

Buzz Builds Over .XXX

David Houston
The Commerce Department's June 30 announcement that the United States would retain, and perhaps expand, control over the Internet infrastructure is roiling other countries hoping to see an international body assume that role. But many industry insiders believe the move was a direct response to a series of missteps by the powerful nonprofit ICANN that coordinates the global network, including engaging in a nasty legal fight with VeriSign, the company that manages and assigns the .com and .net names.

"ICANN has never laid out a game plan and said, 'This is where we need to go,'" Naseem Javed, founder of a corporate naming company called ABC Namebank International. "If you are an Internet service provider in a foreign country, there are lots of ifs and buts. ICANN has never listed grassroot problems."

Javed said ICANN has spent too much time haggling with governments and private entities over domain names at the expense of laying out an infrastructure to deal with the explosion of overseas Internet users.

"China has more than 100 million users on the Internet and if you add that up with Europe and other parts of Asia, you have well over 1 billion users on the Internet," Javed continued. "So that's the kind of numbers we are dealing with and the question then becomes, who is calling the shots?"

'Reviewing The Statement'
ICANN spokesman Kieran Baker declined to discuss the controversy.

"We're reviewing the statement [from the Commerce Department] and continue to successfully fulfill all our outstanding objectives," Baker said in an email. Tom Galvin, a spokesman for VeriSign, also declined to comment. He said in an email that the company was committed to providing DNS services with the highest level of scalability, security and stability.

"We are following the World Summit on the Information Society process closely and are interested in providing support for all stakeholders as the expansion of the Internet infrastructure continues on a global basis," Galvin said.

"In terms of the future of ICANN, the Department of Commerce has clearly signaled that it believes that ICANN should continue to play an important role in DNS management," he said.

But nowhere is the controversy over ICANN more pronounced than in the decision to establish top-level domains such as .XXX. Benjamin Edelman, of Harvard Law School's Berkman Center for Internet & Society, said he believes the proposed .XXX domain is a direct result of the U.S. government's pressure on ICANN to perform.

"ICANN is facing considerable pressure to add more domains, especially in the face of its continued failure to solve some serious problems, [such as] preventing domain hijacking [and] dealing with various other abuses of the DNS," he said. "And with ICANN's large budget and the U.S. government's recent decision to retain increased oversight of ICANN, they are under that much more pressure to deliver results. I think ICANN perceived that adding .XXX would help them gain credibility for taking action, though ultimately I think .XXX doesn't stand up to rigorous scrutiny."

Edelman added that he sees a lot to criticize with .XXX. "What benefit can .XXX offer? So long as use of .XXX is optional, not compulsory, .XXX won't be a way to filter adult material from those who shouldn't get it, like kids and office workers," he said. "Neither will search engines, web directories, or other systems be able to assume that a site is kid-safe merely because it's not in .XXX. Furthermore, if .XXX were to become compulsory, who exactly would decide what sites must be there?"

However some believe the controversy over .XXX gives the adult industry an entry to play a leading role in shaping the future of the Internet.

"The adult industry needs to realize that the way they handle themselves will have ramifications far outside of the industry," Lauren Weinstein, co-founder of People for Internet Responsibility, said. "They're carrying the flag here [in the United States] and, if they drop it, there are a lot of folks around the world who are going to be damaged — and that goes way beyond adult entertainment."

Weinstein said the industry could begin the battle by vigorously opposing the .XXX domain for adult content. Weinstein and other free Internet advocates believe the adult industry largely has bought into a false promise that the .XXX domain won't be mandatory for adult sites.

"The .XXX won't stay voluntary for much longer than it takes the ink to dry on the agreement," Weinstein predicted.

Political pressures from the powerful Christian right in the United States eventually will lead to a forced ghetto where all adult sites end up relegated to the .XXX domain, these advocates believe. Soon, other online ghettos will be created for subjects that powerful slices of the populace find distasteful, they say. Weinstein imagines special domains created for gays, women's reproductive healthcare issues and even cartoons.

"Everybody has their own personal bugaboos about what they don't think people should be looking at," he said. "This .XXX is just the clarion call, the beginning of the battle. It's not even the first day of the war yet."

Internet's Beginning
Developed three decades ago in the halls of the Pentagon and on university campuses across the nation, the Internet largely has been a mirror of U.S. ideals and values. U.S. politicians and judges have shown remarkable restraint in controlling the Internet, believing that it should be allowed to grow and flourish unfettered.

In 1998, ICANN was set up to manage the Internet. The Commerce Department retained control over the network's six mainframe or "root" servers but promised to give them up in 2006. Despite that control, U.S. officials have stood by as China, Cuba and, to a lesser extent, Brazil engaged in widespread Internet censorship. In China and Cuba, for instance, government minders screen every email messages.

"Countries like these think that the Internet should be a system for influencing public policy," said Stephen Ryan, a lawyer specializing in Internet regulation, at the politically powerful Manatt, Phelps & Phillips law firm in Washington. "But they can do that internally."

And while this censorship is repugnant to "people who want a democratic and free society," Ryan said he believes "the United States has done a good job of not husbanding the mercantile area [of the Internet] which they could have done. Remember, the governance of the Internet didn't come with a how-to manual."

But Ryan warned, "There's a big challenge coming."

Facing local pressure groups that would like to see more Internet censorship at home and less in politically repressive countries — and witnessing controversy over ICANN's handling of its responsibilities — the United State's decision to retain control of the Internet past the

September 2006 deadline will soon come to a head, industry insiders predict. Brazil, India, Syria and China already have complained that the United States holds too much control over the Internet.

The European Union and the United Nation's International Telecommunication Union have issued calls for an international body to take over Internet governance. The debate likely will be front and center when most of the world's technology leaders gather in Tunis, Tunisia, this November for the U.N.'s World Summit on the Information Society.

"It's not terribly clear how that will play out," Ryan said. "The U.N. has a different position and that is that there should be international control, so we'll see how much capital the Bush Administration is willing to expend to protect the status quo."

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