Pornography and the Internet

By Jason Poggioli

Nothing is new about pornography being available on the Internet, but its segregation from more innocent subject matter may be. The organization responsible for determining the end portion of domain names on the Internet, such as .com, .edu, .gov, and all the others, voted in June to approve a new one – .xxx, and it’s likely that this will be used chiefly by purveyors of pornography. Predictably this resulted in contentious debate, but the corners from which the proponents and detractors were from may surprise you.

The last parts of domain names are known as the “top level domain” and the organziation responsible for, among other things, determing what they are is the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). This past June ICANN voted to approve the addition of .xxx to the stable of possible top level domains a web site could use.

Ever since the first image of a naked body was posted there have been people trying to block such displays. As a result there are dozens upon dozens of different means available to sanitize the Internet and make it safe for kids. The problem with most, if not all, of these solutions is that they aren’t flawless. Almost all can be easily circumvented, but equally frustrating is how imperfect they are at doing what they are supposed to do. Often times they filter legitimate web sites while simultaneously failing to block something that they should. Anyone using a computer in school or at a public library can encounter this firsthand.

The plethora of existing filtering programs and their authors really aren’t to blame for these shortcomings. It’s pretty understandable why writing a program to automatically block unacceptable content is challenging without an artificially intelligent HAL 9000 capable of making off-the-cuff decisions. How exactly can a program be written to distinguish between a helpful sex-ed site and a Penthouse posting when similar words can be found in each? Perhaps you’re fine with blocking both, but the complex algorithms in these programs have been known to be triggered by even the most innocuous content.

The purpose of having a new .xxx top level domain is to reserve a corner of the Internet exclusively for adult content. The first, most obvious, result of this is that adult material can now be easily identified and filtered by automated software. However, usage of the new .xxx designation is voluntary so lack of adoption could bring us back to where we started. It’s voluntary because even the adult industry is divided over the issue. Not because anyone is saying kids should have unfettered access, but because mandatory application could make censorship that much easier.

Once all adult content is easily identifiable it would be a minor effort for a local service provider to shut down access for everyone – whether they asked for it or not. This might lead you to believe anti-pornography groups and parental watchdogs would be in favor of this new top level domain, but that’s not universally the case. Their concern is that by creating a domain dedicated for adult entertainment it becomes legitimized, popularized, and makes it easier for kids to find. It’s also been said, perhaps in jest, that some of the most outspoken morality crusaders may not want their surfing habits to be so easily recognizable in log files.

Along with censorship fears associated with mandatory usage there is also a very real dilemma of how to determine a site should designate itself with the .xxx ending. If usage of the .xxx domain suffix is required then someone or some group will need to create the rules. The Internet is a big world where one man’s art is another man’s smut – writing regulation would be no easy task.

In the end, of course, successful monitoring of children on the Internet can not be fully automated in a fool-proof way and parents will need to have a hand in their kids’ Internet usage. Parents can’t always be there every second, though, and a big step in making it easier for automated filtering to work is to first make it easily identifiable.

Jason can be reached at

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