Goodbye Dot-com, Hello Dot-xxx: Porn Gets Its Own Web Domain

ICANN has sparked controversy by creating a "red-light district" on the Web. In March, the non-profit regulatory agency that governs Internet addresses approved ICM Registry's 2004 application for the .xxx domain suffix.

Now battle lines are being drawn, setting up a test for corporate social responsibility within the porn industry and challenging both the reach of censorship and the limits of self-regulation.

Considering the often countervailing winds of protecting minors on one hand and protecting free speech and civil liberties on the other, the decision reveals the difficulty in assimilating pornography not just within a legal or commercial framework, but within society in general.

A LANDMARK MOMENT FOR THE INTERNET

"ICANN's decision to give .xxx final approval is a landmark moment for the Internet," said ICM Chief Executive Stuart Lawley in a press release.

"For the first time, there will be a clearly defined Web address for adult entertainment, out of the reach of minors and as free as possible from fraud or malicious computer viruses."

The release also noted that "the contract will require anyone registering a .xxx domain to complete an application process endorsed and overseen by the International Foundation for Online Responsibility (IFFOR)," adding, "for consumers who wish to browse adult entertainment sites, it provides reassurance they are more protected from the risk of viruses, identity theft, credit card fraud and inadvertent exposure to child abuse images. It will also provide individuals and parents who wish to avoid adult entertainment sites the opportunity to filter out unwanted .xxx material."

"We believe consumers will be more prepared to make purchases on .xxx sites, safe in the knowledge their payments will be secure," said Lawley.

"Tens of thousands of adult entertainment website owners recognize the business benefits of .xxx and have already applied to pre-reserve over 200,000 .xxx domains."

The decision means IFFOR "will be able to contribute programs to make a difference in protecting children online," said IFFOR director Clyde Beattie.

"In addition, we will be able to establish a forum for the online adult entertainment community to communicate and proactively respond to the needs and concerns of the broader Internet community."

Considering that the most common top-level domains are .com (private sector), .org (non-profit sector), .edu (educational institutions) and .gov (government), the adoption of .xxx not only establishes the porn industry as fundamentally different from those other sectors, but also suggests that it is a fundamental segment of society that demands its own cyber-sphere of influence.

LET THE BACKLASH BEGIN

But detractors of the plan -- including established porn actors, trade organizations and the world’s largest adult video producer, Vivid Entertainment -- argue that it would create a stigmatized section of the Web that would be easy to censor.

They also call the decision unfair because it forces existing porn sites to apply for .xxx domains simply to protect their brands from being registered by others.

"Our industry is unanimously opposed," said Diane Duke, executive director of the Free Speech Coalition, a trade association representing more than 1,000 pornography businesses, in The New York Times.

She said that the coalition's members, which include Hustler and Adam & Eve, will likely maintain their current dot-com addresses and did not rule out legal action against ICANN's approval.

TESTING THE LIMITS OF SELF-REGULATION

"This is a test of our accountability mechanism," said ICANN chairman Peter Dengate Thrush, in The New York Times article. "In the end, I think the system was able to cope with a contentious matter. We are trying to build a self-regulating industry, and this is self-regulation at work."

Self-regulation is a contentious topic within the arena of corporate social responsibility. In the porn industry, it is an even thornier issue, considering that it is already combating huge opposition from a large segment of the mainstream public, not to mention powerful religious groups.

But the sector has proven to have quick reflexes in this regard. Last fall, for example, when the American porn industry came under fire after an adult performer tested positive for HIV, the online sex portal Brazzers rapidly deployed "Get Rubber!" -- a corporate social responsibility video featuring female porn stars promoting safer sex to its viewers and explaining the frequent testing that its performers undergo.

"I know for a fact that the partners I work with are healthy and disease-free," says Jessica Jaymes in the video. Jenna Haze adds, "That's a privilege you don't get in the real world."

PORN: LEADING INNOVATION

The porn industry has often been lauded for its innovations in technology. "Like it or not, but every major media format in the world has only been successful because of the embrace of the pornography industry," says Terence O’Brien on Switched.com.

"For an industry that many people won't admit they've ever patronized, pornography has had an amazing impact on virtually every new medium, from cave painting to photography," writes Dan Tynan in PCWorld.

"Dirty pictures have been credited with ensuring the future of the VCR, boosting cable TV subscriptions, helping to kill off the Betamax and HD DVD formats, and (perhaps most important) driving the growth of the Internet."

It makes sense, considering that demand drives innovation, and the demand for porn is always high. The question now is, is this a moment of innovation for the porn industry that will end up benefiting society in general, or will .xxx fizzle out like Betamax?

The contention that .com porn sites will be forced to purchase corresponding .xxx domains is a valid one. To that point, Lawley argues that .xxx domains would be offered an e-commerce system that customers can trust, which will increase sales. The fear that the separation of porn sites from the rest of the Web could lead to stigmatization and censorship is a bigger issue.

But ultimately, the porn industry will survive, as it always has. After all, it is often called one of the "recession-proof" industries, along with food, healthcare and defense. No matter what the economy is going through, societies must eat, take drugs, protect themselves and get off, too.

But as CSR-oriented firms in these vital industries know, it's one thing to meet those needs, but it's another thing altogether to meet them in an ethical way.

image: GlassGiant.com