U.S. schoolchildren soon will have access to the first-ever internet domain designed specifically for kids. The initiative is yet one more attempt by Congress to shield children from accessing inappropriate material online—but observers caution that it’s not a panacea and will only be as effective as the adults who are in charge.

President Bush on Dec. 4 signed the Dot-Kids Implementation and Efficiency Act of 2002, which promises to carve out some child-friendly territory within America’s .us web domain, called .kids.us. Congress had approved the bill Nov. 15.

Built and policed by NeuStar Inc., a corporate manager of communications services, the new space will not allow web sites to provide hyperlinks to other sites existing outside the .kids.us territory—nor will it tolerate other sometimes risky communications services, such as chat rooms and instant-messaging services, unless content providers can guarantee their safety.

“This is our nation’s best chance to guarantee kids an online experience that is fun and age-appropriate,” said Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., who wrote the Senate’s version of the bill.

Proponents of the system hope it will provide such an experience by ensuring that only those sites promising the most appropriate content for children under the age of 13 be allowed to join the domain.

According to Barbara Blackwell, NeuStar’s manager of public relations, the company is in the process of soliciting children’s advocacy and online safety groups, as well as educators and parents, for suggestions about what qualities a site should demonstrate to be deemed acceptable.

So far, the company has proposed a number of potential standards. Some of the possible restrictions would include no sexual content of a normal or perverted kind, no lewd display of genitals or female breasts, a ban on any of the “seven dirty words” as identified by the Federal Communications Commission, no teenage and adult game sites, and no content that displays revealing attire, advocates the legal or illegal use of drugs, or promotes gambling, alcohol consumption, tobacco use, and violence or hate crimes.

Exceptions to these provisions would be made only if the suggested content is considered to have serious educational value to children, NeuStar said.

NeuStar also is looking at applying guidelines to internet and advertising safety that are similar to those proposed by the Children’s Online Protection Act (COPA) and the Children’s Advertising Review Unit, part of the Better Business Bureau.

Currently, the company is working through the comments it already has collected about its proposed guidelines. James Casey, director of policy and business development for NeuStar, said official specifications will be released in a matter of a few weeks.

“First and foremost, we want to build a space that kids will use and actually come to,” Blackwell said.

NeuStar is nearing the end of the first year of a four-year contract with the federal government to build and maintain the new sub-domain. According to Casey, the contract could be extended to as many as six years if the company shows progress and proves its methods are effective. “It’s a big challenge,” Casey said. “But it’s one that I think we’re up to.”

Adding to the pressure, NeuStar has agreed to build the domain under a “zero-cost contract,” which means that any revenue the company receives must come directly from registration fees paid by web site owners to become part of the new domain.

That means NeuStar will risk a substantial financial loss if .kids.us is poorly received or proves ineffective at filtering out inappropriate content.

“All cost recovery will come from fees charged for the registration of a name,” Casey said. “It’s critical people join so that we can recover the costs … We can create the safest place in the world, but if nobody uses it, nobody is protected.”

To make it through Congress, the legislation had to undergo a number of significant changes since the concept was unveiled by Rep. John Shimkus, R-Ill., in the House last March.

According to Casey, major revisions included language regarding financial hardship, which would make it possible for the U.S. Department of Commerce—the agency overseeing the project—to terminate NeuStar’s contract if the domain fails to promote enough interest from content providers or is unable to provoke excitement among children and educators.

The provision provides a failsafe for NeuStar, which otherwise would stand to lose a significant amount of money if forced by contract to maintain and police a web domain that was going unused.

Casey said the final version of the bill also attempts to tone down some of the more ambitious goals proposed in the original concept. It strikes language that originally would have required participating web site operators to promise that no inappropriate content would appear on their sites, replacing that pledge with a softer clause that asks site owners to make a concerted effort to provide child-friendly, interactive content.

The final version of the legislation also gives NeuStar a little more time to accomplish its goals and demonstrate progress, with two potential one-year extensions thrown in as bonus incentives for showing results.

“No one has ever done this before. We laid out a few things that we thought would take more time,” Blackwell said. “And they extended the contract.”

Originally there was talk of creating an international web domain for children, but discrepancies arose over how best to control and dictate the content in a cross-cultural environment.

According to Mary Hewitt, director of communications for the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN)—the nonprofit organization working with Commerce to regulate the national Domain Name System (DNS)—Congress scaled back efforts to make .kids an international domain along with .net, .org, and .gov when lawmakers were faced with the complication of dictating what appropriate content should be for children on a worldwide scale.

“It gets difficult to ascertain … what is appropriate for children around the world,” she said. “With over 244 countries that have access to the internet, it’s just too difficult.”

That’s because different countries have different cultural ideas about what is appropriate for children to view online, she said. “What’s seen as acceptable for a child in the United States might not be deemed acceptable in Iran,” she said.

While Hewitt said ICANN was pleased with the decision to go with a regional .kids.us sub-domain, she warned that designating a portion of the internet to children would not protect them fully against online predators and other inherent dangers.

In considering the use of a child-friendly internet domain such as .kids.us in schools, some educators say they, too, will approach the resource with cautious enthusiasm.

“Certainly, I think that some educators will make use of .kids, but I also think that parents will make use of it. A fundamental challenge will be for NeuStar to correctly interpret the guidelines set forth in the legislation by Congress. It cannot be said enough that the only true way to ensure student safety on the internet at school is for internet use to be curriculum-driven and age-appropriate, have adequate supervision by adults, and—most importantly—[give kids] the necessary internet and information skills to make them safe, effective users,” warned Bob Moore, executive director of information technology services for the Blue Valley Union School District in Kansas. “At some point, they will not be using .kids, and if they don’t have the necessary skills, they will be no more safe or effective.”

Marc Liebman, superintendent of the Marysville Joint Unified School District in California, voiced similar concerns.

“I would absolutely recommend that our schools use this domain, but also understand there will be sites that are useful outside of it,” he said. “Unless we limit access on the net to only that domain, it will not ensure that students won’t end up at the wrong site. As always, it will be as effective as the adults who supervise student use of the net.”

Links:

NeuStar Inc.
http://www.neustar.com

NeuStar’s .us Domain Page
http://www.neustar.us

Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D.
http://www.neustar.com

U.S. Department of Commerce
http://www.neustar.com

ICANN
http://www.icann.org