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Addressing porn

THE INTERNET IS A LOT LIKE Houston: sprawling, proud and without any zoning to speak of. Just as warehouses can exist only a few blocks from mansions in Houston, porn sites can exist only a few clicks from education sites on the Internet.

Actually, everything on the Internet is just a few clicks from everything else on the Internet. (And mansions side-by-side with warehouses are hard to find in Houston, but anyway.) So the Bush administration was right last week to object to a new ".xxx” domain for pornography, even if it did so for the wrong reasons.

The idea behind .xxx is that it would make it easier to block -- or find, if anyone needed help -- pornography on the Internet. The suffix would be reserved for porn sites, much in the same way the .edu suffix is reserved for educational institutions.

It all sounds sensible, even helpful, except for two small details: theory and execution. It’s a bad idea that probably wouldn’t work anyway.

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While we are admittedly squeamish about the government trying to exert control over the architecture of the Internet it invented, the greater danger might be a move to turn domains into the online equivalent of a ratings system. Once that .xxx domain exists, what’s to stop the government or some interest group from demanding that a site about, say, safe sex be moved to it?

The Internet has always had content-specific domains, such as .jobs (for, no kidding, human resource managers). But few are as explicit, in both senses, as .xxx.

At any rate, trying to regulate Web content is an exercise in futility. Even with .xxx, pornographers would not be required to give up their .com sites. Pornography, like humidity in Houston, is part of the climate of the Internet. It can occasionally be contained, but it cannot be controlled.

In its complaint about .xxx, the Bush administration raised none of these objections. Its letter to ICANN, the acronym for the group that oversees the system of Internet addresses, noted the widespread concern “about the impact of pornography on families and children.”

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The idea seemed to be that the new suffix would somehow legitimize pornography. This makes no sense. Zoning laws that restrict strip joints to certain parts of town aren’t meant to legitimize strip joints; they’re meant to keep them away from other neighborhoods.

ICANN was scheduled to give .xxx its final approval last week, but that decision has been delayed. Whatever the reasons, the group should resist the temptation to create a pornography-only zone on the Web.


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