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Questions abound about red-light district for Net

NEW YORK -- A red-light district tentatively cleared for construction on the Internet -- the ''.xxx" domain -- is being billed by backers as giving the $12 billion online porn industry a great opportunity to clean up its act.

A distinct online sector for the salacious, one with rules aimed at forbidding trickery, will reduce the chances of Internet users accidentally stumbling on porn sites, they argue.

If only it were so simple.

Zoning in cyberspace has always been a daunting proposition, and participation in the porn domain will be voluntary. Critics wonder why ''.xxx" received approval at all when so many other proposals sit unaddressed, some for years.

Nearly five years after rejecting a similar proposal, the Internet's key oversight body, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, voted 6-3 this month to proceed with ''.xxx."

ICANN staff will now craft a contract with ICM Registry Inc., the Jupiter, Fla., company that made the bid. If the board and ultimately the US Commerce Department approve it, ''.xxx" names could appear in use by the year's end.

The market unquestionably exists: Two in five Internet users visited an adult site in April, according to tracking by comScore Media Metrix. The company said 4 percent of all Web traffic and 2 percent of all surfing time involved an adult site.

As envisioned, ICM would charge $60 for each of up to 500,000 names it expects to register, $10 of which would go to a nonprofit organization that would, among other things, educate parents about safe surfing for children.

The nonprofit, run by representatives of adult websites and free-speech, privacy, and child-advocacy concerns, would determine registration eligibility.

Skeptics argue, however, that porn sites are likely to keep their existing ''.com" storefronts, even as they set up shop in the new ''.xxx" domain name. And that will reduce the effectiveness of software filters set up to simply block all ''.xxx" names.

The ''.xxx" domain ''legitimizes this group, and it gives false hope to parents," said Patrick Trueman, senior legal counsel at the Family Research Council and a former Justice Department official in charge of obscenity prosecutions.

The adult entertainment industry is also hardly behind ''.xxx" as a group. Many of its webmasters consider the domain ''the first step toward driving the adult Internet into a ghetto very much like zoning laws have driven adult stores into the outskirts," said Mark Kernes, senior editor at the trade monthly Adult Video News.

ICM insists it would fight any government efforts to compel its use by adult websites, but the existence of ''.xxx" would certainly make the prospect easier.

''There are going to be pressures" to mandate it once available, said Marjorie Heins, coordinator of the Free Expression Policy Project at New York University's law school. Federal lawmakers have proposed such requirements in the past.

Robert Corn-Revere, a lawyer hired by ICM to address free-speech issues, said the company has pledged $250,000 for a legal defense fund to keep ''.xxx" voluntary, and he notes that courts have struck down efforts to make movie ratings mandatory.

''Where governments have tried to use private labeling systems as proxies for regulation, courts have always held those measures unconstitutional," he said.

Even if it's voluntary, supporters say, adult sites will have incentives to use ''.xxx."

''If the carrot's big enough, you're going to get sites in there," said Parry Aftab, an Internet safety expert who served as an informal adviser on ''.xxx."

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