What's in a name? For the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), domain names are the way to organize a chaotic global internet. But when ICANN proposed a .XXX domain for adult-content, it sparked a political fight. Those debating the new .XXX suffix are an uneasy alliance of pornographers, the Christian right, conservative countries and the U.S. government. Brooke speaks to Bret Fausett, a lawyer and advisor to ICANN, about how names can hurt you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What's in a name? For the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, or ICANN, names or domain names are the way to organize a chaotic global Internet. But the task of assigning domain names and the content those names imply, .com, .net and .org, for example, also is increasing political.
ICANN was created by the U.S. Government and despite international representatives on its board, ICANN ultimately still answers to the U.S. Department of Commerce. But the Department has never used that authority until last month. That was when a five-year-old plan to generate a new domain name suddenly ignited new outrage, mostly from the Christian right. The new domain name was to be .XXX, designed specifically for Internet porn. After a deluge of six thousand letters, the Commerce Department stepped in to halt ICANN's imminent passage of .XXX. But according to Bret Fausett, a lawyer and advisor to ICANN, opposition to the new domain extended far beyond America's borders.
BRET FAUSETT: There were also some governments that wrote to ICANN. ICANN has a body known as the Government Advisory Committee on which representatives of the world's governments sit. And some of the people who were opposed to it included the board member from China, board member of Mexico. If you look at where people came from who voted against it, they come from countries that I think you could fairly describe as more conservative.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Could you sum up what the argument against the .XXX domain name would be? It seems to me that if you put all the porn guys there you'd be able to identify them and, and perhaps even regulate them ultimately.
BRET FAUSETT: You know, politics truly does make strange bedfellows because on both sides of this issue we find conservative groups and pro-pornography groups who don't want to see .XXX come into being from the conservative side or those who think that a top-level domain specifically devoted to adult content would somehow give it legitimacy that it shouldn't have.
The pornographers who are on that side don't want a .XXX because they don't want to be ghettoized into a .XXX. They want to stay in .com. And on the other side of the equation you have people who are in favor of it, who include conservative family groups who think that, yes, having a segregated area for XXX and, and adult content would be a very good thing for families and children. And you also have pornographers who think it would be a good thing because it would give them another brand.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So let's unpack these arguments for and against .XXX. People on the Christian right or the conservative groups who oppose this domain are, well, at the very least a bit naïve if they think that the pornography business needs the legitimacy of a particular domain name to be strong.
BRET FAUSETT: I think it is naïve but I, I think that there really is a segment of the community – you find this view all of the world – that believes that once you give it an official label accessible to anyone in the world that that elevates it in status and somehow makes it acceptable. I, I don't agree with that view but I understand it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And when the pornographers say they don't want it because it'll ghettoize them, this is voluntary, so far at least. The proposal has them able to keep their .com domain along with the .XXX so it seems to me there wouldn't be any ghettoization going on.
BRET FAUSETT: Absolutely. The proposal right now is voluntary. But, you know, I think it’s naïve for the people who are in favor of it not to think that governments are going to piggyback on top of .XXX with national laws requiring adult content to move into .XXX.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Is that because once they're all in XXX you can start imposing controls on XXX? At least Sandra Day O’Connor said that the .com world is virtually unpoliceable.
BRET FAUSETT: That's exactly the point. And if you go back ten years when Congress was first dealing with adult content on the Internet, they passed something called the Communications Decency Act. This went all the way up to the United States Supreme Court and the Court said, "This is unconstitutional." And one of the opinions that's often looked to for the greatest weight is Sandra Day O'Connor’s opinion. And she said, "You know, the Communications Decency Act isn't constitutional now but maybe some day we'll be able to zone the Internet the same way we zone adult businesses out of, you know, areas where there are schoolchildren, areas where there are churches, areas where there are families." She said, "We're not there yet but maybe some day we'll get there."
And I think that if .XXX passes, and I still think it will over the next three or four years, you’re going to see many, many nations pass laws requiring pornographic content to move into .XXX.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: All right. Bret, thank you very much.
BRET FAUSETT: Oh, you’re very welcome.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Bret Fausett is an attorney and an advisor to ICANN representing Internet users.