.XXX Does Not Mark the Spot

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Earlier this month, the guardian of the Internet’s domain name system, ICANN, played straight into the hands of the ICM Registry. ICANN trumpeted the news that a sexy new top-level domain has been approved for rollout later this year. ICM Registry hopes to get what is coyly called the adult entertainment industry to register domains with the suffix .xxx.

What's in it for the skin merchants? Not much--just a chance to market what they are currently selling quite successfully from .com domains. By raising public awareness of this announcement, ICANN and the news media have given publicity to something that is, in essence, an unwanted product.

It's a truth universally acknowledged that sex sells. It's a truth acknowledged by the Guinness Book of Records that sex.com sells for the highest sum ever recorded--$13 million in November.

But almost nobody except for ICM Registry and ICANN seems to believe that .xxx is necessary or necessarily valuable. It's not particularly attractive to purveyors of this kind of content, because it doesn't make their product any easier to purvey--in fact, it makes it easier to block.

It took ICM more than six years to get ICANN to approve the .xxx domain, and it took six days for the first reports that an entire country plans to block it. India's the first to make the announcement. We're betting that thousands of companies and another country or two will follow suit.

This is hardly the first time that a new top-level domain has been introduced for no apparent reason. When the domain naming system was first introduced, top level domains were easy to understand. There were country-level domains such as .uk and .us. Then there were domains that reflected the business of the domain owner, such as .gov for government, .edu for education, and .com for commercial enterprises.

But the rush for domain registration dollars soon muddied the waters. The steady stream of revenue that comes to the domain registry (Network Solutions for the .com space) and domain sellers such as GoDaddy andand 1and1.com have fueled a huge speculative industry. Everyone wanted .com after their name, so all the good names were snapped up. Desperate domain seekers snapped up .net and .org domains instead, even though they were intended for network providers and nonprofits. Pretty soon all the good domain names were gone-and more top level domains were required to fill the need.

This new wave of domains was based not on the location or business of the domain owner but the content of their sites. This introduced such essentially redundant domains as .info, .museum, .biz, and .mobi. At a stretch, these all make sense (and New York's mta.info is a brilliant example of how well a nouveau top-level-domain can fit its content), but at their root, they're all about domain registrars making a buck or two from selling people something that by definition is their second or third choice.

The same applies to .xxx, but more so. For its part, the ICM Registry pushed some very noble-sounding goals for the .xxx domain: To safeguard children from exposure to marketing of adult material, to combat the use of spoofing and other malicious technologies that are currently associated with pornographic sites, and to oppose fraudulent and unsolicited spam for adult-oriented material.

Will this new top-level domain bring about any of these benefits? Of course not. Can ICANN or anyone else prevent this from happening? Likewise, of course not.

ICM has spent six years addressing ICANN's initial objections, that ICANN's Sponsorship Panel "did not believe that the .xxx application represented a clearly defined community" and "did not agree that the application added new value to the Internet name space."

In the intervening time, ICM Registry has gleaned enough pre-sales and other tokens of industry interest to convince ICANN that they have something to bring to the table. ICANN's advisory panel on matters of public policy, the GAC, raised twelve objections to the new domain, which were systematically knocked down, and the issue became a done deal. Three sunrise registration periods are slated for the summer, and the whole thing should go live shortly afterwards.

What does this mean for the rest of us? Not much, really. This is a story of one company trying to spin straw into gold, and an Internet domain regulatory body that doesn't intend to get in its way. Unless you're shooting for a slot on the domain reseller charts by making a few speculative purchases of .xxx domains, move along to the next story. There's nothing to see here.

Matt Lake is an author, award-winning technology journalist and technical services coordinator in the field of education.

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