May 4, 2006  ·  Tim Wu

The dot xxx debate has been back in the news recently, and what I find unendingly puzzling is the sides taken.

From first principles, you’d except groups who want it to be harder to get pornography on the internet to want a .xxx domain — followed by a law (like this one, or stronger) ordering ISPs to block porn sites that don’t move to the porn zone. That would make it relatively easier to avoid randomly running into porn on the internet.

Yet as everyone knows the positions are reversed. The United States has signaled strong opposition, as have other governments. Groups in opposition rely on arguments that defy logic – like the argument that dot-xxx would mean more porn on the internet (if there is anything slowing the market for porn, its not the unavailability of a domain name). But U.S. groups, for reasons I cannot fathom, urge that dot-xxx would “mean perhaps twice as many Internet porn sites and twice the danger to children.”

What the episode largely teaches is a lesson in how the obessions of large and powerful states will shape the Net of the future. The opposition to dot-xxx is fairly hysterical — it is of the mindset that thinks it is better to pretend pornography doesn’t exist, for to admit it exists is to condone it. That’s a puzzling way of thinking to much of the world, but very familiar to Americans and some Europeans. Hence the opposition to dot-xxx.

Since the 1990s I’ve thought alone with others that porn on the internet could be better zoned. But if to zone it is to condone it, so much for that vision.

  • http://gnuosphere.blogspot.com Peter Rock

    Tim Wu says:

    groups who want it to be harder to get pornography

    And this is the cause of irrationality. Invariably, those who wish to control what others psychologically engage in will advocate for such absurd “solutions.” Wanting to “make it harder to get” is simply a neurotic, thoughtless approach.

    The day I stop communicating with others (especially children) and instead turn to locks and keys to “protect” others from questionable internet content, please shoot me. And no, a mixture of both is not rational either. It’s contradictory. You do not protect the pysche of another by controling and manipulating the environment. You protect another by bringing about critical awareness through honest dialog and human interaction.

  • Peter Herndon

    I don’t believe it is entirely irrational. Instead, the issue is legitimacy. In the minds of those who feel that vice (whether it be porn, recreational drug use, violent video games, rock music) is wrong, to give that vice a recognized home is to legitimize the vice. It means that they are forced to admit that, while vice may be wrong for them, it still may have a valid place in other folks’ lives. And that is something they cannot do without destroying their own moral code.

    Liberal: “Why can’t we just agree to disagree? Why can’t you live your life your way, and let me live my life my way?”
    Conservative: “Because then I’d be a liberal.”

  • http://gnuosphere.blogspot.com Peter Rock

    Peter Herndon says:

    Instead, the issue is legitimacy. In the minds of those who feel that vice [...] is wrong, to give that vice a recognized home is to legitimize the vice.

    And that is irrational. Like Tim stated, this mindset often feels that – “to admit [pornography] exists is to condone it” That just doesn’t make sense. A key point here is that pornography is not vice. Pornography is pornography. Vice may or may not be a descriptor of one’s relationship with pornography. To equate pornography or drugs or junk food as “vice” is to imply that the issue lay in the observed rather than the observer.

    The drug example in the U.S. is another debacle. Going to “war on drugs” is absurd. Money funneled into fighting the selling and use of drugs is better spent on education programs.

    Is that not simply obvious or have I completely lost my mind?

  • schomsko

    Great commend by Peter.

    This reminds me on the movie “Walking Tall” with “The Rock”. But if you try to walk tall in real life, it ends up like in Dave Chappelle’s show “When keeping it real goes wrong”.

  • http://bonobo-conspiracy.ca/ Matthew Skala

    I strongly oppose the creation of .xxx precisely because it would then be easy and tempting for someone to make a law requiring all “adult material” to be registered under .xxx. Such a law would be a very bad thing for all the usual free speech reasons.

  • http://sethf.com/ Seth Finkelstein

    As I put it – when everyone across a political spectrum, from civil-libertarians to censors, agrees that something is a bad idea, and its only major proponent is the organization which wants to make money off it – that’s a pretty good indication that it’s a bad idea.

    The only people in favor of .xxx are the people who want to make money selling the domains.

  • Peter Herndon

    Before I start, let me note that I consider myself “liberal” in the sense described by my little addendum to my earlier comment. I am arguing these points both to clarify the argument, and just because I enjoy playing devil’s (or is that _D_evil’s? ;) advocate.

    Peter, you wrote that pornography is not vice, and that the term “vice” describes an individual’s relationship with, in this case, pornography. Wikipedia and common usage both disagree with your definition. Vice is not a relationship to something that exists, it is a “failing or defect” of virtue in a person. Pornography both graphically represents people engaging in acts of the “vice” lust, and is intended to incite that same vice in the viewer. As such, pornography is not vice, agreed, but it is vicious. And those who create and disseminate pornography are engaging in vicious acts.

    Your argument that vice is a relationship begs the question, in that it presupposes the liberal viewpoint that different people may have different relationships to e.g. pornography. Unfortunately, the conservative viewpoint is that all people have the same “relationship” to pornography, whether or not they admit it to themselves or others. And that relationship is lust, which is a vice.

    In order to get around this one, you need either to argue successfully that morality is relative, rather than absolute (and *that’s* a philosophical black hole you do not want to touch — c.f. Kant); or that lust and/or “vices” in general are not morally wrong; or that pornography does not inspire lust.

    Good luck with that, let me know how it goes.

    My own thoughts on the matter are that personal freedom of choice, and the responsibility for those choices, should trump others’ desires to eliminate sin in other people. Couched in religious terms, God gave us all free will, and gave us responsibility for our thoughts and actions. While He also commanded that His followers proselytize, He did not say that one person should interfere in another’s life and prevent them from sinning. In part, because sin is intent, rather than action. If you fully intend to commit a sin, e.g. killing your wife, but are denied the opportunity, e.g. she was run over by a bus earlier this morning, you are just as guilty of murder as the person who succeeds in such actions.

    Since sin is intent, one person denying another the ability to manifest that sin in physical action doesn’t prevent the sin anyway, so the only reason to disallow the physical action (assuming the sin is one in which no harm comes to others, such as lust) is to prevent the possibility of temptation. Yet, preventing temptation itself goes against God’s will, by denying others the opportunity to “just say no” to sin, denying them the exercise of their free will.

    Of course, this argument is vulnerable in the assumption that intent is enough to be sin. If one instead believes that only actions are sinful, and that intentions are not, then my argument falls apart. However, I’m fairly certain that the Bible mostly supports my premise. Not that the Bible isn’t self-contradictory, it is, but — mostly. Unfortunately, this all presupposes a Christian theological backdrop. While that presupposition works well in the context of the United States and the neo-cons, it certainly doesn’t hold water in the larger picture.

    When you remove religion from the argument, though, you are left with a couple of classic problems. If you base my argument above, that freedom of choice trumps banning vice, on non-religious grounds, you are forced to ask why. Why does freedom of choice trump legislating morality?

    If you answer that question with the utilitarian notion, that individual freedom to seek out the best life provides the greatest good for all, then one falls prey to the classic utilitarian problem: what is a “good”? How does one rank an individual good against another?

    If you answer that question with morality grounded in something actual, you’d best be prepared to defend that grounding. If you instead answer with an ungrounded morality, well, then you’re re-doing Kant’s work, which has too many logic problems to stand as written.

    *shrug* I don’t have an answer yet. I don’t know anyone who does know the answer of how to base morality on reason.

  • http://www.castingoutnines.net Robert

    I think I understand the free-speech et al. arguments being made against dot-xxx domain creation, but I also try to see this from the standpoint of being a dad.

    My daugher is just 2 years old, and for the next few years part of my job as a parent is precisely to control what she sees, what she eats, when she goes to bed, and so on. Parenting involves setting boundaries and then allowing freedom within those boundaries; but when the kids are young those boundaries have to be set close and moved outward gradually.

    So I disagree with the blanket statement given by Peter Rock above that “You protect another by bringing about critical awareness through honest dialog and human interaction.” There is a lot that is true about this statement, but it also leaves out a lot, namely the fact that with young children, parents often have to simly lay down the law (and explain — through honest dialogue — why the law is the way that it is). As the child grows older, and proves that s/he can handle more freedom, then you can give them more freedom. But first come the boundaries.

    I’m not suggesting my 2-year old is surfing for porn behind my back (she’s more into the Wiggles website). But the dot-xxx seems to be a simple way to alert parents about the content of a web site and then take the actions that appropriate for parents to take. And it seems like it prevents inadvertent access by anybody to a porn site (like the infamous whitehouse.com web site) who does consider porn to be a vice.

    Again, there are good arguments both for and against, but the parenting point of view is important here.

  • http://sethf.com/ Seth Finkelstein

    Robert, as a practical matter, bona-fide porn sites *already* include a range of notices to facilitate them being blacklisted. ALREADY. Better than the .xxx domain.

    The .xxx is a useless idea in part because it offers no benefits. It’s worse, technically, than existing blacklisting and self-blacklisting techniques.

  • James Day

    Matthew, once there’s a law requiring adult material to be under .xxx, that’s where Wikipedia would have to be, since it contains material for adults that not all adults want for all children of all ages. The target audience for Wikipedia is adults, not children. Will be interesting to see what those who want .xxx make of one of the leading reference resources of the internet age being forced into .xxx and schools allowing .xxx acces so they can still get to it. :)

    (adult material: pictures of human and animal genitalia in sexuality and physiology articles and the frescos from Pompeii, for example. Possibly now or eventually clear material illustrating various acts, though I don’t think that’s present today)

  • Kurt

    Instead of trying to turn all the Internet into a kid-friendly sandbox (except for .xxx, which will be blocked), just make a .kids.us domain, and only allow kid friendly sites to set up in there, with stiff penaties for “child harmful” material under the domain as part of the getting-your-domain-name contract.

    Whitelisting .kids.us is much easier for all concerned. It’s a simple idea. I do not understand why it has not happened. This lets the politicians claim to be “doing something” and “thinking of the children” without creating trouble elsewhere.

  • James Day

    Kurt, define “child”, “harmful” and “child harmful” please. Now find definitions that all people from ultimate liberals to the most restrictive religious fundamentalists will agree with, including agreement on the appropriate ages for each piece of material. Next, work out what happens to a toy or book or whatever store with material covering all age ranges and religions. Finally, sort out what happens when the parents start screaming that the place they want to go to isn’t in .kids because it has some material not suitable for that domain and doesn’t want the criminal or civil prosecution from doing what they are demanding.

    Net result: .kids.religious.fundamental.religion1.age1-3, .kids.religious.fundamental.religion2.age1-3, .kids.dissentingbutnotfully.fundamental.age1-3 etc. domains.

  • Tim Wu

    The .kids domain is actually I good idea, I think…!

  • http://sethf.com/ Seth Finkelstein

    Kurt, Tim: The “sandbox” idea has been around for ages. Sigh. The sad fact:

    NOBODY WANTS IT

    Repeat:

    NOBODY WANTS IT

    Whenever anybody tries to market a “sandbox”, it has essentially no customers. This has been borne out for a decade.

    It’s a tribute to the insularity of the upper-level debate that it’s so completely disconnected from the reality of what’s been tried and failed :-(.

  • http://www.tekstadventure.nl/branko/blog/ Branko Collin

    Nobody wants it.

    That’s what’s so great about it; anytime somebody comes up with the won’t-somebody-think-of-the-children argument, you can counter with “it’s not my fault you’re not using .kids”. Much better IMO than allowing an “.xxx”, only to see it outlawed out of existance.

  • http://sethf.com/ Seth Finkelstein

    Branko: That argument hasn’t worked for the past ten years (to oversimplify a little). One of the problems with the rarified debate is that it tends to focus on what the arguer thinks should work, even though it doesn’t (no offense intended).

  • http://www.tekstadventure.nl/branko/blog/ Branko Collin

    What is “the rarified debate”?

  • http://sethf.com/ Seth Finkelstein

    Branko: I might be being arrogant here, but it’s my view that many of the policy debates are conducted among a very small group of people, who basically only talk and listen to each other, about very abstract proposals. So sentences like “That idea was proposed, and tried, and failed, and failed again, for the following reasons …”, are almost useless to write. The reply, if there is one, will be, “But it’s a *good* idea”. And it is. In theory. But the theory is wrong.

    Whitelists and blacklists are a case in point. They aren’t original ideas. They’ve been implemented in various ways almost since the start of the Net. This information just doesn’t seem to make it into the policy debate, because it’s too empirical.

  • http://www.tekstadventure.nl/branko/blog/ Branko Collin

    Seth, I don’t know if you’re arrogant, I just don’t know what the phrase “rarified debate” means. I wasn’t commenting, I was asking. Do you mean a debate that keeps repeating itself among a small group of debaters with fortified positions?

    If so, I fear I am not a member of that core group and don’t quite understand which argument I have raised that’s been proven not to work the past ten years.

  • http://sethf.com/ Seth Finkelstein

    It’s not “fortified positions” so much as “insulated from practice”. That is, the top-level policy people keep putting forth the same vague points, without incorporating where they’ve been tested and failed.

    I didn’t want to seem to be harsh on you while making the point, that the argument that concerned parents can use whitelists, hasn’t worked politically. What I mean by rarified debate is roughly this sequence:

    “Proposal: – Let’s have a blacklist” (e.g. xxx domain, which is a particular poor implementation)

    “Blacklists might be tools of government oppression”

    “But I’m a *parent* worried about THE CHILDREN!!!”

    “I’ve got a great idea – a whitelist

    “Yeah, a whitelist is a great idea”

    This sequence doesn’t change. I can’t figure out how one gets the debate to incorporate the past decade’s practice with blacklists and whitelists.

  • Andrew

    Seth,

    Can you give (or point me to) some examples of the failures of the blacklist -> whitelist sequence (aside from .xxx) over the last decade? I’m fairly new to this debate and don’t know what you are referring to.

    Also, why is it that, regarding the sandbox, “NOBODY WANTS IT”? If Kurt and Tim think it’s a good idea, and concerned parent Robert feels children’s “internet safety” is an issue that needs to be addressed, why are there no customers? Is it a defect in the marketing strategy? To extend the sandbox metaphor, are they marketing the boxed-in, sanitary features of the sandbox and not the things that make sandboxes fun, like buckets and shovels and dump trucks? Or is it a case of the public misrepresenting what they want in regards to “internet safety”?

  • http://www.tekstadventure.nl/branko/blog/ Branko Collin

    Seth, thanks, it’s clear now. :-)

    Unfortunately, I did not make that argument. I wish to use the mere presence of whitelists (whether they are useful or not–and I agree that “not” is the more likely answer) as a strategic tool to ward off any attempts to limit free speech under the emotional argument of “won’t anybody think of the children”.

    I don’t care whether whitelists actually get used or not. I just want to be able to say, “I’ve done my bit, now if you folks” (whether it’s parents or puritans) “don’t wish to use the tools I’ve given you, that’s your problem.”

    A cynical position? Undoubtedly. We put speed bumps in the road based on the cynical position that drivers won’t adhere to the law.

  • http://www.tekstadventure.nl/branko/blog/ Branko Collin

    Andrew, sandboxes lack of success may be explained by the fact that using them requires action by parties that feel that they shouldn’t have to do anything. I doubt parents and puritans feel it is their task to keep the internet “clean”. (Not my opinion, btw.)

    Another reason may be that the internet tends to be leaky. To given an example: the boss at a part-time job once asked me to rid his home computer of porn (that he had not put there), because his kids kept running into it. Turned out he had spyware on his pc, so that when their kids visited the wholesome websites that would fall inside the whitelists or outside the blacklists, they still got confronted with pornographic pop-ups. I had the difficult task of telling him that his kids might run into porn no matter how clean his pc.

    (Of course I also told him about the dangers of downloading and installing stuff willy-nilly.)

  • http://sethf.com/ Seth Finkelstein

    Andrew: The most spectacular failure of a whitelist idea was the .kids.us domain: (“Two years after the USG mandated childsafe second level domain kids.us opened for business, it hosts, one can hardly say boasts, a scant 21 live websites.”)

    You can read about the history of one system on The Net Labelling Delusion Saviour or Devil

    Search for “CyberYES” to read about one commercial whitelist which might still exist, though not a big seller itself.

    The basic problem is that all the proposals work off a model which is empirically wrong. It’s something the writer thinks *other* people should want, but they don’t. It’s very roughly:

    Censor: “I want ‘X’”

    Civil-Libertarian: “Here’s ‘Y’.”

    “But I don’t want ‘Y’. I want ‘X’”

    “According to what I view you want – or deserve – you should be happy with ‘Y’”

    “I told you, I don’t want ‘Y’. I want ‘X’”

    “But according to my analysis, ‘Y’ fits your needs”

    “I’ll say it again: I DON’T WANT ‘Y”. I WANT ‘X’”

    [Here: X == targeted material marginalized as much as possible. Y == A personal blacklist or whitelist]

    Branko: Again, whitelists have been available for a long time. It’s not like the debate is going to advance from where it is now.

  • http://gnuosphere.blogspot.com Peter Rock

    Peter Herndon,

    My statements require no understanding of Kant. They do not require belief in Him or the Bible as His word. Although Wikipedia and common usage of “vice” may not agree with me, I’m not trying to prove a technicality. I’m simply saying that if someone has a destructive relationship with something, the key to the ending of destruction lay in the observer, not the observed. I’m not trying to argue a system to spell out what it means to act morally. Following any system or code of morality is destructive.

    Robert said:

    I disagree with the blanket statement given by Peter Rock

    Unfortunately, I have not made myself clear. I don’t advocate blankets for any use other than keeping one warm on a cold night. I too am a parent of a very young child. Obviously, each situation must be seen for what it is and a decision made based upon circumstances. I’m not going to let a baby stick her hand in the fire because I believe in some “liberal” parenting system. However, I can honestly say that I will never bar my child from looking at pornography. But let’s make this clear from the start – this does not mean I will be bringing home a stack of explicit magazines for my child to look at nor will I be adding such bookmarks to my browser. The fact is, by the time my child is old enough to be curious about such things, my child will be old enough to engage in a discussion with me. Although I have confidence that my discussion will (either immediately or eventually) lead to my child discovering the vapidity of pornography, that is not important. What is important is to make sure the child is compassionately and thoroughly questioned yet given the ultimate decision to behave how he or she wishes. In the case of pornography, I believe a combination (conversation/restriction) is contradictory and sends the wrong message to a child.

  • ACS

    I strongly oppose the creation of .xxx precisely because it would then be easy and tempting for someone to make a law requiring all “adult material” to be registered under .xxx. Such a law would be a very bad thing for all the usual free speech reasons.

    I dont understand they would still have freedom of speech (just try and take it away). This seems to me to be a form of organisation of compilation of materials rather than censorship.

    In any event the porn industry is not known for compliance with legislative instruments dictating thier operations and it would be likely to fail from a practical point of view rather than a legal one.

  • http://gnuosphere.blogspot.com Peter Rock

    News from BBC.

    Ultimately, I think Seth nailed it:

    when everyone across a political spectrum, from civil-libertarians to censors, agrees that something is a bad idea, and its only major proponent is the organization which wants to make money off it – that’s a pretty good indication that it’s a bad idea.