.xxx debate puts spotlight on ICANN’s accountability


7 May 2010103 Views

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The ongoing struggle between ICM Registry, the company pushing to get a .xxx domain for online adult entertainment, and ICANN, the independent body responsible for managing domain names, has nothing to do with the merits of a domain for x-rated web content and more to do with ICANN’s accountability and transparency, says Stuart Lawley, chairman and president of ICM Registry.

The story behind this struggle is long but not very complicated: the proposal for a .xxx sponsored top-level domain (sTLD) was approved by ICANN in 2005. One year later, ICANN reversed the decision and in 2007 it was again rejected. ICM Registry appealed this decision and a little over a week ago it was announced that they won the appeal.

ICANN had changed its mind and dragged its heels over implementing a .xxx domain but Lawley says that this back-tracking was ruled as breaking international law.

"It was ruled that ICANN was wrong to not execute a contract with us," explains Lawley.

"The facts of the case have now been decided. It’s now back to ICANN and it has a decision to make whether it is going to abide by the decision of its own final method of accountability."

As ICM Registry sees it, this has no longer got anything to do with the merits of having a .xxx domain on the web but more to do with ICANN having its way.

"It was a five-day trial with three of the world’s top arbitrators. They looked at thousands of pages of documents, they had witness testimony in person with people including Vint Cerf, the father of the internet and Paul Twoomey, then CEO of ICANN.

.xxx arguments

While many see the battle between ICANN and ICM Registry over a .xxx domain as something to be fought on moral grounds, with some arguing that pornographic material is immoral and others saying that .xxx will only draw attention to x-rated content, making it easier for children to find, Lawley makes the point that the former are missing the point and the latter have got the point – it would be easier to find and therefore easier to label and filter, thus making it more straight forward to avoid for parents, children and those who do not want to access this kind of content.

"It needs to be a win-win situation for all people: it is meant as a self-regulatory space for members of the adult entertainment to label content and show the world that they can act in a responsible manner. For those who do not want to see it, this labelling allows them to do this using filters."

But this is not the most interesting aspect of the case. The fact that this is the first time that anyone has ever invoked the independent review process within ICANN’s laws is what requires a second look.

"It took three years and US$7.5m of legal costs to do so. ICM Registry alone spent US$5m. As we speak, there is a meeting going on in ICANN HQ convened by the accountability and transparency review team as required by this affirmation of commitment, and that is looking at ICANN’s accountability because a lot of people are of the belief that ICANN is not accountable to anyone but itself.

"What they do with our decision will test that."

What does it all boil down to?

"ICANN themselves set out the rules in 2003 for top-level domains; a list of qualifying criteria. We satisfied this, the ICANN board verified that. We’re saying just give it to us."

Lawley also points out that when ICM Registry initially applied for the .xxx domain five years ago it was a more limited space and now given opening up in the next year it makes sense that .xxx should be included.

"ICANN is just about to open up the floodgates next year for more top-level domains. It has already been announced that there will be a .gay, .arab and .kurd, and some of these are definitely going to be controversial."

As the web becomes a more crowded place with masses of content, says Lawley, is the way to tackle this.

By Marie Boran

Photo: Courtesy of mdezemery via Flickr