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updated 4/18/2011 2:12:02 PM ET 2011-04-18T18:12:02

Pornography finally has an official home on the Internet, and how governments treat this newly formed parcel of digital real estate could have significant implications for everything else on the Web from the presence of ethnic minorities to the spread of free speech.

With “.xxx” finally joining the ranks of top-level domains including “.com” and “.edu,” decades of speculation about the impact of this new Web destination will finally be put to the test.

The Internet Assigned Numbers Authority, which coordinates the basic codes responsible with routing Internet traffic, took the .xxx top-level domain name live, along with the websites sex.xxx, xxx.xxx and porn.xxx, April 15. This came a month after ICANN, the organization that runs the World Wide Web, ended a decade of litigation with the final approval of the new top-level domain (TLD).

The long fight over a ".xxx" domain pitted adult- industry groups — who opposed what they envision as an easily blocked, digital ghetto for legal content — against various groups arguing that a TLD specific for adult material could provide better service to customers and better protect minors.

"It's a win for people who want to consume adult content, it's a win for people who produce adult content, and it's a win for people who want to stay away from this material as well,” said Stuart Lawley, chairman and president of ICM Registry, the company that will administer the .xxx TLD.

Lawley believes that over time, the majority of adult entertainment sites will forgo the dot-com domain. Members of the adult-content industry are less bullish on the idea of acquiring a .xxx address.

“Depending how much it costs, I would buy it just to direct traffic to my site, but I would not change from Burningangel.com to Burningangel.xxx,” said Joanna Angel, owner of that adult website. “If it cost any more than $50, I wouldn't invest my money in it. Everybody thinks that there's billions of dollars sitting around in porn, but there isn't, especially now. Once you're porn, you're not allowed the same rights as a band. Anything that puts us into a smaller box will make it harder for us to make money."

Though joining the new domain is optional, opponents of the move fear that someday it might become compulsory, and could subject adult sites to censorship.

Since different countries have starkly different rules about what does or does not constitute adult material, deciding whether or not a site deserves a .xxx domain will  force ICM Registry into the world of international power politics, said Milton Mueller, a professor at the Syracuse University School of Information Studies.

How ICM Registry and ICANN deal with the different definitions of pornography in, say, liberal Sweden and conservative Saudi Arabia will serve as the precedent for how Internet regulatory bodies deal with countries trying to silence the Web voice of ethnic minorities, dissidents or free-speech activists, Mueller said. And with the .xxx TLD now up and running, that precedent is already getting written.

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