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ICANN chokes off .xxx porn registry

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Plans for an area of the internet dedicated to pornography were killed last night in a vote by overseeing organisation ICANN.

In a split 9-5 board decision, the organisation acted ruthlessly, against its own previous position, in order to put an end to an increasingly difficult and controversial issue - the approval of a .xxx top-level domain.

The .xxx registry application has been the focus of enormous political pressure on ICANN for the past six months and was used at one point as a political football in a wider tussle for power within the internet. Despite everything that has been written and will continue to be written about the application however, two simple facts need to be recognised:

  • 1. The US government, despite its constant denials, has been the driving force in preventing the .xxx registry from being approved thanks to a campaign of right-wing Christians with close links to the current administration.
  • 2. The company behind .xxx, ICM Registry, has done all that has been asked of it in order to answer people's concerns, but has had its efforts ignored or misrepresented by those opposed to the registry.

The history of the .xxx domain has been long and incredibly complex, with its approval constantly delayed or stymied for increasingly untenable reasons. It has also exposed ICANN's flawed decision-making processes and revealed the hidden hand behind what is supposed to be an autonomous organisation overseeing the internet. ICANN has had to decide against its own recommendations, and has been caught in a web of conflicting statements.

A huge campaign against .xxx has seen ICANN's public comment board for the registry flooded in recent days by hundreds of posters with little or no understanding of the .xxx bid, but all stating their opposition to its approval. The same campaign has been raging for months, with one ICANN Board member sent threatening letters due to an assumed bias for the registry.

What happened behind the scenes was that the US administration told ICANN chairman Vint Cerf and head Paul Twomey that it did not approve of the domain, but due to the difficult political position that it would put both ICANN and the US government in were it to be seen to be directing internet policy (against its publicly stated "hands off" policy), there has been a carefully co-ordinated effort to kill the registry through delay.

The final crunch came in a series of letters last week, and only just released, between the Government Advisory Committee (GAC) constituency of ICANN and ICANN head Paul Twomey. Effectively, the GAC made it clear it would continue to delay introduction of .xxx for as long as it deemed necessary and ratcheted up the pressure by asking ICANN to send it a written explanation of its decision with regard to .xxx.

ICANN top brass decided the hot potato had started to burn and so decided to vote the whole application down in a board meeting. The split in the board vote, however, represents an ongoing, if slow, revolution at the heart of ICANN. A majority of the board can be relied upon to vote with chairman Vint Cerf without asking questions, but a new breed of board member has tired of the secretive approach the organisation continues to take and is fighting against its rubber-stamping image.

It is no mistake that the 9-5 split is the same as the ICANN board's approval of a new contract which handed VeriSign control of the .com registry in perpetuity and handed it huge money-raising powers - a decision that was greeted with dismay and fury by internet observers across the world.

In an effort to control the outbreak of rebellion within its own board, ICANN has repeated its constraints following the dotcom contract approval and put a gagging order on all board members for 48 hours. Supposedly, this action allows the non-English speaking board members to prepare their statements, but in reality it prevents what will no doubt be strong criticism of the .xxx decision and ICANN processes by ICANN's own board members from hitting the media at the same time as the announcement.

Most furious today, though, will be the owner of ICM Registry Stuart Lawley who had spent years and millions of pounds pushing the .xxx domain. Only last month, when the .xxx issue was again delayed at ICANN's meeting in New Zealand, he told us he would continue to answer everyone's concerns. But his sense of injustice was clear: "ICANN have gone well outside their previous procedures for the other sTLDs on this one," he told us. "Given the political posturing I guess it is understandable, yet extremely frustrating. The contract was reviewed by the board during their 18 April call and by inference they must be happy with the terms as they did not ask for any amendments."

The reality is that ICANN has again been compromised by political pressures - pressures that both sides claim not to exist. ®

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