After opening its doors for registration in June, the company overseeing development of the world’s first child-friendly internet space says its “kids.us” web domain is gaining momentum. Still, its critics believe content providers will have trouble warming up to the service, which would require companies to register and operate at a separate location on the web.

The domain, formed as part of the Dot-Kids Implementation and Efficiency Act of 2002, promises to carve out some child-friendly territory within America’s “.us” internet domain, where children under the age of 13 can work, play, and surf without being subject to inappropriate content such as pornography, gambling, and other inappropriate online fare.

Whether the domain succeeds will depend in large part on how willing children’s content providers are to register for the service, which would require companies big and small to pay a fee for including their web addresses in the domain.

In June, NeuStar Inc.–the for-profit manager of communications services tapped by the U.S. Department of Commerce to launch and operate the domain–began accepting applications for its Sunrise Registration period.

This application window, which was set to close at midnight Aug. 16, was meant to give trademark holders an opportunity to protect their brand names before the company opened its doors to the public for general registration.

Barbara Blackwell, NeuStar’s public relations manager, said the company is working hard to promote interest in the new second-level domain by holding work sessions, addressing vendors’ questions,

developing marketing schemes, and keeping close ties with lawmakers on Capitol Hill.

As of mid-July, NeuStar already had received applications from “several hundred” major trademark holders, a number the company expected would rise as the registration period progressed.

“It’s only been a month,” Blackwell said. “We’ve gotten a pretty good response from companies during the Sunrise period thus far.” NeuStar, however, refused to release the names of those providers.

Barriers to success

One potential hurdle to the widespread adoption of the domain is the number of steps companies and content providers must take before they can participate.

To register, companies first must go to the NeuStar web site and locate the list of approved domain name registrars. Then, they must shop around for the best price (eSchool News reporters who visited the site found that registration fees vary considerably, depending on which registrar content providers choose).

Finally, there’s the matter of money: According to Commerce Department officials, registration fees can cost up to $350 per year.

Online safety experts critical of the initiative contend the success of kids.us will hinge on whether providers can ensure the domain eventually will provide content that is appealing to children.

“The secret is to put together enough sites on a searchable database that makes it worth while,” said Parry Aftab, an internet privacy lawyer who heads up Wired Safety, which claims to be the world’s largest internet safety, help, and education organization.

In an interview with eSchool News, Aftab applauded the “good intentions” of legislators to create a safe haven for children on the internet, but said the idea “is before its time.”

Since the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA)–the law that prohibits web site owners from collecting personal information from children under the age of 13 without parental consent–went live in April 2000, Aftab reports several child-oriented internet content providers have gone under. Reason: They have been unable to secure the parental consent necessary to collect personally identifiable information from their target audience, Aftab said.

Without such information, she said, companies have found it difficult to develop successful advertising campaigns and establish usable demographics for their target audience. The result has been a substantial decrease in the number of child-only content providers in the online marketplace.

“You really saw the demise of the kids market when [COPPA] came down,” she said. “Every major kids site not owned by a major entity has seemingly ceased to exist.”

Aftab doesn’t doubt that major companies such as Disney and Scholastic eventually will sign on to the new domain, but she questions the enthusiasm of smaller providers in a marketplace now seemingly dominated by big-name parent companies and well-established brands.

Many of the smaller providers that exist today, whether they offer online curricula or educational games for children, don’t have the money or resources to apply for and operate as part of a completely separate internet domain, she said.

Aftab also foresees potential legal scuffles over the registration of domain names. Although NeuStar is offering early registration to companies that wish to protect their trademarks, Aftab said instances undoubtedly will arise where smaller providers will apply for domain names that closely resemble the web tags of major brands, a tactic familiar on the broader internet adopted to increase hits to a particular site.

NeuStar reportedly has developed policies to address these issues, but Blackwell said the company is currently focusing on conducting the registration process and is not yet concerning itself with problems that could arise down the road.

“Right now, there really is no reason the pay the money, other than to make sure no one is using your domain name,” Aftab said.

Until kids.us eventually garners enough support to provide a domain that can reasonably compete with the vast array of sites and resources available on the wider internet, Aftab suggested schools and parents turn to white lists offered by such organizations as the American Library Association and her own Wired Safety.

These resources, she said, provide updated lists of thousands of internet sites deemed suitable for children by educators and other nonprofit safety advocates.

Too soon to draw any conclusions

On Capitol Hill, some of the domain’s staunchest supporters contend it’s too early yet to tell whether the kids.us domain will succeed.

“It’s a little too early yet to be judging its success or failure based on who is or who is not signed up at this point,” said Steven Tomaszewski, press secretary for Rep. John Shimkus, R-Ill., who introduced the bill in the House. “Representative Shimkus would not have supported the bill had there not been hope for a useful and safe place on the internet for kids.”

For NeuStar, which agreed to build the domain under a “zero-cost contract,” participation among providers big and small is critical, because any revenue the company receives must come directly from registration fees paid by web site owners.

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

NeuStar has established a number of standards to keep participating sites safe. Restrictions 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 contains hate speech, advocates the illegal use of drugs and weapons, or promotes gambling, alcohol consumption, tobacco use, or violence.

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

NeuStar also has established guidelines to internet and advertising safety that are similar to those proposed by the Children’s Online Protection Act and the Children’s Advertising Review Unit, part of the Better Business Bureau.

In May, NeuStar enlisted the help of Cyveillance, an online provider of business intelligence, to monitor and review content for the kids.us domain. The plan is to use a combination of human intervention and advanced search technology to canvass participating sites and ensure content providers stay within the rules.

Penalties for non-compliance range from immediate removal of the domain name from the zone on one hand, to a notification process on the other, which would give the provider between four and 12 hours to correct the problem, depending on the nature of the violation. If a domain is removed from the zone, content providers will be forced to repeat the review process, NeuStar said.

The domain is set to launch in September, just in time for back-to-school. Blackwell said NeuStar is in the process of organizing launch activities to promote interest in the resource.

See these related links:

kids.us domain page
http://www.kids.us

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

Wired Safety
http://www.wiredsafety.org

Rep. Shimkus’ office
http://www.house.gov/shimkus