Samantha Sharf | The problem doesn't stop with porn


Elements of Style | .xxx is just the start of changes to the internet as we know it


samantha

Samantha Sharf
Elements of Style

Photo by Samantha Sharf


You probably learned how to work the internet in the mid-1990s.

With parental permission you would click on the blue America Online triangle, select your ultra-clever screen name from a drop-down menu, type in your equally funny password and click “sign on.”A little orange man would then run across the screen to the tune of a dial tone. In minutes, you were connecting with your favorite Nickelodeon characters on nick.com or learning which hairstyle works for you from a quiz on seventeen.com. Whatever your interest, you knew that something.com would get you where you wanted to go — or close.

After a lifetime of .com comfort, however, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers wants to change the way you surf the web.

Last week, ICANN — the not-for-profit that oversees the domain-name system — began accepting applications for unique generic top-level domains. Current gTLDs include .com, .org and .gov.

The newest gTLD, .xxx, is a trial for future custom domains and is intended to denote sites that contain explicit sexual content. The tag has potential to help parents control what their children view online.

Unfortunately, .xxx is not required of or exclusive to porn sites. As a result, organizations are acting preemptively by purchasing domains that could be linked to their brand. Penn, for example, bought domains like penn.xxx.

But the problem doesn’t stop with porn. As early as next year, web addresses can read something.anything. Imagine, penn.university or DP.newspaper.

The move could potentially be the largest change in domain names since the first seven gTLDs were introduced in October 1984. Back then, separate domain names were created to carve out distinct spaces for organizations such as corporations and nonprofits, resulting in websites as we know them today.

The impetus behind the modern domain revamp, however, is considerably less compelling and even unclear.

According to their website, ICANN believes they are “paving the way for increased consumer choice by facilitating competition among registry service providers. Soon entrepreneurs, businesses, governments and communities around the world will be able to apply to operate a Top-Level Domain registry of their own choosing.”

Last time I checked, the English language alone provides plenty of choices before the dot. And with a $185,000 application fee, ICANN is creating a new investment game for corporate consumers while confusing everyday internet users.

Some interesting applications of the system have been proposed. Writing for Forbes.com, Gretchen Olive of the Corporation Service Company recommended that social media organizations such as Twitter purchase “.twitter” (or “.facebook”) and dole out personalized domain names to individual users.

If Olive gets her way, samsharf.twitter will one day bring you to my Twitter feed.

Intriguing — but not very different from twitter.com/samsharf, a domain that currently does the job. At present ICANN administers 22 domains. Over the years, country and industry-specific domains such as .uk and .musuem have been added to the original seven but such endeavors have found minimal success.

The internet provides endless opportunity, but most users seem to want simple surfing.

Paul Vixie, chair of the Internet Systems Consortium, criticized the change, pointing out that under the current model we know exactly what can or cannot be typed into a browser. When any word has the potential to appear after the dot, however, it will become significantly harder to discern between web addresses and random strings of text. This will lead to uncertainty for advertisers and consumers alike.

Currently, the University has no plans to apply for any custom gTLDs according to Robin Beck, Penn’s vice president for Information Systems and Computing. Universities at large, she wrote in an email, are keeping an eye on the gTLD situation but few institutions plan to apply. She described purchasing a gTLD as a commitment to “operate a registry business,” adding “this is not the business we’re in.”

Penn aims to protect its trademarks — such as name — on all fronts, Beck added. For domain names this means, “the University routinely seeks to register domains — such as the .xxx domain names — that could be associated with its brand and is continuing to identify trademarks that it believes could be used in ways not intended by Penn.”

The University’s recent foray into .xxx territory was wise. But this is just the beginning.

Samantha Sharf, a former Managing Editor for The Daily Pennsylvanian, is a College senior from Old Brookville, N.Y. Her email address is samsharf@sas.upenn.edu. Elements of Style appears every Wednesday.

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