It’s not often you’ll see the conservative group Focus on the Family and free-speech advocates, including the American Library Association (ALA), on the same side of an issue. Yet both sides agree that a proposal to create a top-level domain for internet pornography likely will do little to protect children from such content.

Owing to these and other concerns, the internet’s key oversight agency agreed this week to a one-month delay in approving a new “.xxx” domain name. The delay comes after the U.S. government cited “unprecedented” opposition to creating a virtual red-light district.

At issue for parents and educators is whether a .xxx domain would shield children–in schools, at home, in libraries, and in other places where kids access the web–from materials that are considered harmful to minors.

Michael D. Gallagher, assistant secretary for communications and information at the U.S. Commerce Department, stopped short of urging the rejection of the “.xxx” domain, but he called on the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) to “ensure the best interests of the internet community as a whole are fully considered.”

The department received nearly 6,000 letters and eMail messages expressing concerns about the impact of pornography on families and children and objecting to setting aside a domain suffix for it, Gallagher said.

“The volume of correspondence opposed to creation of a ‘.xxx’ TLD [top-level domain] is unprecedented,” he wrote to Vinton Cerf, ICANN’s chairman.

Gallagher said ICANN should take more time to evaluate those concerns.

The chairman of ICANN’s Government Advisory Committee, Mohd Sharil Tarmizi, also wrote to ICANN officials last week urging delay and expressing “a strong sense of discomfort” among many countries, which he did not name.

ICANN’s board decided to rescheduled the matter for Sept. 15.

Approval had been expected as early as Aug. 16, five years after the domain name was first proposed and two months after ICANN gave it a tentative OK.

Gallagher’s letter, sent last week and made public Aug. 15, had particular resonance because his agency has veto power over ICANN decisions. But ICANN also was swayed by an agreement to a one-month delay by the chief backers of “.xxx,” ICM Registry Inc. of Jupiter, Fla.

Two in five internet users visited an adult site in April, according to tracking by comScore Media Metrix. The company said 4 percent of all web traffic and 2 percent of all surfing time involved an adult site.

ICM proposed “.xxx” as a mechanism for the $12 billion online porn industry to clean up its act. All sites voluntarily using the domain would be required to follow yet-to-be-written “best practices” guidelines, such as prohibitions against trickery through spamming and malicious scripts.

Skeptics note that porn sites are likely to keep their existing “.com” storefronts, even as they set up shop in the new “.xxx” domain, thereby reducing the effectiveness of any software filters set up simply to block all “.xxx” sites.

Daniel Weiss, senior analyst for media and sexuality for Focus on the Family, a conservative group that opposes the .xxx domain, said his organization supports that opinion.

“Nobody has to give up their dot-com address,” Weiss said. “You’re creating another domain, the express purpose of which is pornography. I guess a church could take out a ‘.xxx’ domain, but I don’t imagine they will.”

The Family Research Council, another conservative group, also expressed worries that creating a “.xxx” suffix would legitimize pornographers.

Weiss said his organization believes much of the pornography on the internet could be illegal as well, citing the 1973 Supreme Court case Miller v. California, which established standards by which states can judge and prosecute materials deemed obscene.

Examples given by the court include images in which “penetration is clearly visible” or “descriptions or representations of masturbation or lewd exposure of the genitals.” By the criteria set forth in the case, federal courts will support prosecution of these types of depictions that states find obscene by the standards of their community, Weiss said.

“In many of these instances, we believe federal law is being violated. It doesn’t make sense to create a top-level domain name for materials that violate federal law,” he said. “It’s sort of like creating a domain name called ‘.drugs’ and permitting people to use that space to trade in illicit substances.”

ICM chairman Stuart Lawley, in a response to ICANN’s decision to delay establishing the domain, pointed out that the agency already offered ample opportunity to raise objections.

“We are, to say the very least, disappointed that concerns that should have been raised and addressed weeks and months ago are being raised in the final days,” he said.

In an interview, ICM founder Jason Hendeles suggested the criticism stemmed from a misunderstanding of the proposal, and he said ICM executives would spend the next month trying to clarify its intent.

Deborah Caldwell-Stone, deputy director of the ALA’s office for intellectual freedom, said her organization has no official position on the “.xxx” domain, as long as the provision remains voluntary and not a form of censorship. But she also said she’s not sure what good the measure would do to prevent willful children from obtaining pornography online.

“Certainly, it will help parents who want to filter this domain, as they will be able to do so by blocking it,” Caldwell-Stone said. “[But] I don’t think it will be the final solution to the problem.”

More than 260 domain name suffixes exist, mostly country codes such as “.fr” for France. Recent additions include “.eu” for the European Union and “.mobi” for mobile services.

Links:

Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers
http://www.icann.org

Focus on the Family
http://www.family.org

American Library Association
http://www.ala.org