Faced with opposition from conservative groups and some pornography web sites, the internet’s key oversight agency voted May 10 to reject a proposal to create a red-light district on the internet. Supporters of the proposal billed it as a way to help shield kids from online pornography–but critics argued it would do no such thing.

The decision from the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) reverses its preliminary approval last June to create a “.xxx” domain name for voluntary use by the adult entertainment industry.

ICANN had postponed making a final decision in August after the U.S. government stepped in just days before a scheduled meeting to underscore objections it had received, an intervention that had led some ICANN critics to question the organization’s independence.

“The board was certainly very conscious of that [controversy] … but the heart of the decision today was not driven by a political consideration,” ICANN Chief Executive Paul Twomey said in an interview that followed more than an hour of discussion in a closed teleconference meeting.

Twomey said the decision largely came down to whether the creation of “.xxx” might put ICANN in a difficult position of having to enforce all of the world’s laws governing pornography, including ones that might require porn sites to use the domain. Speech-related laws, he noted, often conflict with one another.

He said concerns raised by various governments around the world did prompt the company proposing the domain, ICM Registry Inc. of Jupiter, Fla., to make changes in its bid, but the changes did not address all of the questions concerning enforcement. ICANN’s rejection of “.xxx” in a 9-5 vote suspends, for now, a 6-year-old effort by ICM to establish a domain for the online porn industry. ICANN first tabled its bid in 2000 out of fear it would be getting into content control.

ICM resubmitted its bid in 2004, this time structuring it with a policy-setting organization to free ICANN of that task. But the language of the proposed contract was vague, Twomey said, and a majority of the board felt that one interpretation could kick the task back to ICANN.

When the board initially voted last year to move forward with “.xxx,” the contract details had yet to be written.

ICM, which has appealed ICANN’s decision, argued the domain would help the $12 billion online porn industry clean up its act. Those using the domain would have to abide by yet-to-be-written rules designed to bar such trickery as spamming and malicious scripts.

Anti-porn advocates, however, countered that sites would be free to keep their current “.com” address, in effect making porn more easily accessible by creating yet another channel to house it.

And they said such a domain name would legitimize adult sites, which two in five internet users visit each month, according to tracking by comScore Media Metrix. Many porn sites also objected, fearing that such a domain would pave the way for governments–the United States or repressive regimes abroad–or even private industry to filter speech that is protected here under the First Amendment.

Democratic Sens. Max Baucus of Montana and Mark Pryor of Arkansas have introduced legislation that would create a mandatory “.xxx.”

The porn industry trade group Free Speech Coalition believes a domain name for kids-friendly sites would be more appropriate. There is such a domain name already–“.kids.us”–but it is not widely used: Nearly three years after its creation, the domain features only a few dozen web site addresses, many of which are links to entertainment-oriented sites.

Twomey said the board took the porn sites’ concerns as a sign ICM did not fully represent the industry, a criterion required in the current round of domains.

Meanwhile, ICANN approved the creation of a domain name designed to help people manage their contact information online.

As envisioned, internet users could buy a “.tel” name and set up a web site with their latest digits–home, cell, and work phone numbers; home and work eMail addresses; instant messaging handles; and perhaps even a MySpace profile.

The “.tel” domain could appear in use as early as this year.