Political pressure on porn?

The Baltimore Sun

On March 30, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) rejected a proposal by ICM Registry Inc. for a ".xxx" domain for Web addresses. If the proposal had passed, it would have let providers of adult entertainment sites voluntarily register with the new domain, making it easier for families to avoid age-inappropriate materials.

This is the third time the ICANN board rejected such a proposal from ICM.

What does this somewhat obscure international organization have to do with how the Internet will be managed and how governments around the world will view their role in regulating content? Quite a lot - and not necessarily all good.

The issue of what to do about online porn while protecting free speech goes back several years. The Communications Decency Act of 1996 - a portion of the Telecommunications Act that made it a crime to place on the Internet any sexual expression that was patently offensive or indecent unless the material could be effectively shielded from minors - was struck down by the Supreme Court a year later for being "too broad." Next came the Child Online Protection Act (COPA) of 1998, with provisions for age verification and other measures to shield children from harmful content. COPA also established a congressional commission to consider the best way to protect kids online. A hold was put on the substantial part of the law for nine years. After a recent federal court ruling upholding the injunction, the government is deciding whether to appeal. Other bills have been floated, and still more have been drafted.

I first became aware of the proposed ".xxx" domain during my time as a congressionally appointed member of the COPA Commission in 2000. The promoter was Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut. He argued that "rather than constricting the Net's open architecture, it would capitalize on it to effectively shield children from pornography, and it would do so without encroaching on the rights of adults to have access to protected speech."

ICM Registry agreed, took up the idea of the ".xxx" domain and promoted it to ICANN, the global coordinator of domain names. The first proposal was rejected in 2000 on the grounds that ICANN did not want to be in the content-regulation business. A revised contract from ICM with a proposed new body, the International Foundation for Online Responsibility, was rejected in 2004 on the grounds that the bid was too "vague." After incorporating ICANN's concerns and addressing the organization's fear of being seen as a global content cop, ICM submitted a further revised bid in January. This, too, has been turned down.

A troubling undercurrent to this unfolding saga is the impact of the Governmental Advisory Committee of ICANN on the debates, delays and decisions of the main board. Many have argued that this committee has been used to promote a stance of the Bush administration and has put undue pressure on the staff and board of ICANN. Some of the main opponents of the ".xxx" domain are members of the U.S. religious right who fear that its acceptance would legitimize porn. Critics say the White House is overly sympathetic to these views and the constituency they represent.

The implication and grave concern of those who care about the governance of the Internet is that the United States exerts a disproportionate amount of influence at a time when the administration is at pains to declare ICANN's independence and freedom from U.S.-based policy. Other countries are not convinced, and many observers worry that moves by China and others to create their own governing bodies are under way.

So, where does all this leave ICANN? While some will be cheering the decision, many more will be left wondering how this body can retain whatever semblance of transparency, objectivity and independence of government interference it claims to possess.

The decision by ICANN, influenced as it has been by political pressures, chips away at the fundamental value of the Internet. For all of us involved in the online world - and that is virtually all of us - this is a worrying trend.

Stephen Balkam is CEO of the Family Online Safety Institute. His e-mail is sbalkam@fosi.org.

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