Whither 'Internet Anarchy?' Controlling Adult Content Online

September 14, 2005

One of the Internet's unresolved issues is the possibility of unhappy accidents, such as stumbling upon explicit adult content while looking for something entirely different. One celebrated example involved a Web site that had used the name of an American landmark in its address. Users who clicked there looking for history, however, found scantily clad women instead –- raising the prospect of exposing a child researching a social studies project to inappropriate images.  


Recently, the Government Advisory Committee (GAC) of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) entertained a proposal to resolve this issue by creating a new top level domain: .xxx. The three letters were chosen because they "transcend geographic regions and languages while having high recognition and lasting value for both registrants and Internet users," according to the proposal filed with ICANN. But on Aug. 12, 2005, GAC notified the ICANN Board of Directors that the new domain had not been well received by several governments, and recommended a delay to allow for more discussion.

Matthew McCarthy, professor of information systems at the W. P. Carey School of Business, proposed his own solution to the problem of pornography on the Internet eight years ago. McCarthy suggested the string .acp (adult content provider) -– a sequence that identifies the nature of the content without engaging the value judgment involved in using the word "pornography," or the emotional charge of .xxx. Even if ICANN could get its culturally diverse constituency to agree, however, McCarthy believes any new string identifying adult content will fail to address the problem. He says that's because there is no ultimate ownership authority over the Web which could enforce implementation.

Knowledge: The designation .xxx – or .acp for that matter -– is a Top Level Domain (TLD). Could you explain the function of the domain name?

McCarthy: Locations on the Internet -- Web sites -- are identified by addresses comprised of numbers and symbols. Domain names are "masks" that are attached to these numeric addresses, utilizing words or acronyms that people can read and remember. This is very much like a corporation adopting a doing-business-as (DBA) name for its customer-facing outlets. A domain name includes a three-letter extension following the dot which identifies the site's Top Level Domain, or TLD. TLDs are broad subject categories. The extensions for the original TLDs, established in the 1980s, are familiar to most Internet users -- .com, .edu, .gov, .mil, .net, and .org. In 2001 and 2002, ICANN rolled out four more: .biz, .info, .name and .pro. The extension appears in the URL for every page of a Web site.

Knowledge: In theory, then, TLDs and their extensions should make it easier to search the Web, because they break the universe of information down into subsets.

McCarthy: That's right. The extension could allow your browser to identify what is in the Web site before it takes you there. Many search engines examine the component parts of a URL to determine whether a site matches the parameters of the query. TLD extensions are helpful when content providers attach an extension that is appropriate for the subject matter on the site, however domain names don't always accurately reflect the content, because it is not mandatory. Whitehouse.com was a classic example. Originally that Web address was the front door of one of the largest purveyors of adult content on the Internet, yet it turned up in searches for information about the home of the U.S. president (the domain name for the old whitehouse.com has since changed –- the site currently housed at whitehouse.com is not an adult content site).

Knowledge: A new TLD for adult content appears to be the answer to the problem of managing this kind of material on the Internet.

McCarthy: That's the theory. If a substring function -- the computer operation which examines all of the parts of each domain name -- is incorporated into a browser, users would be able to control whether or not their browser would filter .xxx or .acp Websites.

Knowledge: ICANN is considering .xxx for this purpose. When you started working on this problem in the late 1990s, you chose .acp (adult content provider). What's the difference?

McCarthy: When I first started thinking about this, I considered .prn, representing pornography, but discarded it because "pornography" is a value-laden word. People from varying cultural and religious backgrounds disagree about what constitutes pornography. Triple X has been a ratings measure for a long time, so like .prn, it has acquired connotations that might limit its use on the Internet. Interestingly, the group that proposed .xxx to ICANN considered other strings, and set them aside for similar kinds of reasons. For example, .sex might lead to confusion because in addition to adult content it might be construed as the home for information about family planning. "Adult content provider" passed the test for accurately describing what we are trying to categorize without creating confusion. In any case, ICANN made the .xxx extension completely voluntary, rendering the ability of a browser or search engine to filter adult content a moot point. Although an .xxx or .acp site would certainly distinguish adult content, millions of adult dot-com sites could still exist and be impossible to identify.

Knowledge: Are there freedom of speech issues?

McCarthy: Adult content providers have to identify their wares in virtually every other walk of life. For example, music CDs with offensive language are required to be identified with warning stickers. Many cities also have regulations: adult magazines are sometimes required to be covered when sold in public; zoning requires adult bookstores to be outside a certain distance from schools. The .acp protocol doesn't require the pornographer to do anything more than they would be required to do anywhere else -- simply identify themselves with an .acp extension on their URL. It is important to understand the .acp does not rid the Internet of pornography and sully free speech issues; rather it simply puts the choice to view pornography in the hands of the user.

Knowledge: Who would make sure that these providers use the .acp string?

McCarthy: The people who rent space on the Internet. There is an analogy to the restaurant business that applies here. Bartenders are acutely aware that if one of their patrons gets too intoxicated, causing themselves or others harm, the bartender shares in the liability. This could lead to the loss of his or her liquor license, and essentially the entire business. Why would any bartender risk potential loss of an entire business for one drunk patron? They wouldn't.

The people who own the servers that power the Internet are called hosts. The owners of Web sites pay the hosts a monthly fee to use the host's server space for their Web sites and pages. Let's assume a typical Web site owner pays $20 a month to the host to reside on the Internet, and the host houses 500 different Web sites. That's $10,000 a month, or $120,000 a year. Enter the adult content provider who asks the host if they can be the 501st Web site, and is willing to pay a pretty penny to do so. If the host were to share in the responsibility to make sure the new Web site has the .acp extensions, like the bartender does with their patrons, will they be willing to host the pornography at all? Maybe –- especially since adult Web sites are a billion-dollar industry. What is clear is that the host will certainly not risk $120,000 per year if the penalty for non-compliance with the .acp protocol means losing permission to host on the Internet. With part of the liability squarely in the lap of the host, it would go a long way towards .acp compliancy and putting the control of viewing these materials in the hands of the individual

Knowledge:  Does ICANN have this kind of control over hosts presently?

McCarthy: ICANN is a non-governmental, independent organization that manages domain names. It does not have authority to enforce its decisions, so compliance with .xxx or .acp would be voluntary. This leads to myriad problems. For example, why would an established site with a .com URL (the most popular on the Web) change to .acp and incur the cost of re-branding? Or, what if you were starting up a new site, and the name you wanted had already been taken as a .acp? If you were convinced of the marketing value of the name, why not register as a .com? Nothing would stop you from doing so. As a result, we would still have adult content and pornography sites all over the Internet sporting extensions that are not triple x or .acp. In the end –- without a revolutionary change -– the extension is not a solution at all.

Knowledge:  What next?

McCarthy: This problem goes back to the foundation of the Internet. No one owns the network itself. Entities own hardware, Web sites, data –- but the Internet itself is an intangible –- it is the connectivity of routers. Because of this lack of ownership interest, there are ultimately no rules.

Think about the Law of the Commons. Common land was set aside for use by all in the community. Individuals owned cows, but the land the animals grazed upon legally belonged to no one person. When unlimited grazing depleted the grass, the group may have decided on a schedule of grazing. But because no one actually owned and therefore controlled access to the pasture, there was no way to prevent someone from violating the schedule. It's the same with the Internet. Without the ability to enforce a rule, there is nothing to assure that all adult content will be labeled with .acp or .xxx. The real irony is that so much business relies upon a system that at its base is anarchistic.

Knowledge: How can we establish ownership at this late date?

McCarthy:  Give ICANN, or some other governing body the ability to enforce Internet policies and procedures. We've gone down the primrose path of Internet anarchy long enough, and it's costing us dearly. Businesses spend billions policing their employee's cache when even the simplest Internet rules would assuage many of these problems. Although it sounds draconian, if no entity can be granted governorship of the Internet, then start over completely. Replacing legacy systems with newer technology has always been one of the greatest challenges of information technology, whether it's an accounting system of a small business or the Internet itself. But starting from scratch would ensure a more responsible and safe Internet.