Online pornographers and religious groups are in a rare alliance as a key Internet oversight agency nears a decision on creating a virtual red-light district through a ".xxx" Internet address.
The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, which has already rejected similar proposals twice since 2000, planned to vote as early as next week on whether to approve the domain name for voluntary use by porn sites.
The decision ultimately could hinge on whether ".xxx" has the support of the adult-entertainment industry — and many porn sites have been strongly opposed.
"One of the criteria is that it (must) have general support among the industry it's supposed to serve, and it does not," said Mark Kernes, a board member with the industry trade group Free Speech Coalition. "I have not met one single webmaster or adult video producer that is in favor of `.xxx,' and I've met a lot of them."
Porn sites are largely concerned that the domain name, while billed as voluntary, would make it easier for governments to later mandate its use and "essentially ghettoize sexual information on the Web," Kernes said.
ICM Registry Inc., the company behind the proposal, has vowed to fight any government efforts to compel its use and cited preregistrations of some 76,000 names as evidence of support. Kernes said many Web sites reserved names simply to prevent someone else from having it.
The Free Speech Coalition believes a domain name for kids-friendly sites would be more appropriate.
Given its voluntary nature, ".xxx" is unlikely to have much effect on parents' ability to block porn sites.
And because a domain name serves merely as an easy-to-remember moniker for a site's actual numeric Internet address, even if a government were to mandate its use, a child could simply punch in the numeric address of any blocked ".xxx" name.
Religious groups worry that ".xxx" would legitimize and expand the number of adults sites, which more than a third of U.S. Internet users visit each month, according to comScore Media Metrix. The Web site measurement firm said 4 percent of all Web traffic and 2 percent of all time spent Web surfing involved an adult site.
"They will keep their `.com' domains, and I have no doubt they will buy their `.xxx' as well," said Patrick Trueman, special counsel for the Alliance Defense Fund, a Christian public-interest law firm. "There will be twice as much pornography on the Internet."
Trueman and other critics say ICM will be the only beneficiaries.
The startup, founded and funded by four entrepreneurs with backgrounds in domain names and U.K. Internet companies, plans to charge $60 to register a name — 10 times the fees for ".com." Ten dollars of it would go to a companion nonprofit group that would set policies for ".xxx" use and recommend business practices for combating child pornography and promoting child safety.
ICANN tabled and effectively rejected a similar proposal in 2000 out of fear the ".xxx" domain would force the body into content regulation.
ICM resubmitted its proposal in 2004, this time structuring it with a policy-setting organization to free ICANN of that task. But many board members worried that the language of the proposed contract was vague and could kick the task back to ICANN. The board rejected the 2004 proposal last May.
ICANN revived the proposal in January after ICM agreed to hire independent organizations to monitor porn sites' compliance with the new rules, which would be developed by a separate body called the International Foundation for Online Responsibility.
ICM revised it again a month later to clarify ICANN's enforcement abilities and to underscore the independence of the policy-making body.
Despite the vocal opposition, ICM Chairman Stuart Lawley said he preferred a quick vote, adding that the complaints come from "the same people saying the same things time and time again."
"ICM has done more to demonstrate the existence of a strong community than any other application the (ICANN) board has approved," Lawley said. "We have been singled out for special treatment. From the word `go,' ... we were put in the slow lane."
If approved, ICM would be required to help develop mechanisms for promoting child safety and preventing child pornography, and porn sites using ".xxx" would have to participate in a self-rating system, labeling sites based on such criteria as the presence of nudity and whether it is in an artistic or educational context.
ICANN already has discussed the proposal during three, closed-door teleconference meetings this year. It indicated it would be ready to vote at a public meeting next Friday in Lisbon, Portugal.
But delays are possible if ICANN's Governmental Advisory Committee raises last-minute objections when it meets next week. Last March, the committee called for stronger language in ICANN's contract with ICM, and Lawley said those points have been addressed in the latest version of the contract.
ICM believes the domain would help the porn industry clean up its act, and Lawley said he has gone through great lengths to put its promises into writing.
"We are confident we have dotted every `i' and crossed every 't,'" he said, "and the contract deserves ratification."