Freeman

ARTICLE

Dot-Kids R US

Can a Top-Level Domain Protect Kids Online?

JUNE 01, 2003 by GARY MCGATH

Gary McGath, a software engineer and freelance writer, is a former editor of the Thomas Paine Review.

In children’s stories a problem can often be solved just by uttering the right magic words. Cinderella can become a glamorous debutante with a “Bibbidi bobbidi-boo.” Harry Potter’s friends can get past a locked door with an “Alohomora.” Real life is quite a different matter, though, even when Congress thinks a magic word can protect children from danger.

The magic word in this case is “dot-kids.” Members of Congress have supposed that children can be protected from predators and harmful influences on the Internet by creating a top-level domain (TLD) exclusively for children. Just what sort of protection this can offer has never been made clear.

The original bill proposed was the Dot Kids Domain Name Act of 2001 (HR 2417), which would have ordered ICANN, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, to create a new TLD, .kids, on a par with .com, .gov, and the various national domains. ICANN would have had 30 days to carry out the mandate and would have been forbidden to establish any other TLDs until it had done so. It didn’t quite work out the way the bill’s sponsors expected.

There are two types of top-level domains, those that apply to a particular country and those that apply worldwide. The .com and .net TLD’s are worldwide; anyone anywhere can register a domain under them. The same would have been true for .kids, but its content would have been under the control of the U.S. government. Registry would be permitted only through a California corporation called .KIDS Domains.

The existence of a .kids domain would not in itself prevent children from accessing other domains. It would not keep anyone from contacting children by e-mail or online chat. But it would allow the U.S. government’s designated domain administrators to specify acceptable content for domains registered under .kids. On what basis would the U.S. government set standards for children worldwide? What is acceptable in parts of Europe could be shocking in much of the United States. What is deemed harmless in the United States might be considered utterly indecent in Saudi Arabia. ICANN describes itself as “a coalition of the Internet’s business, technical, non-commercial, and academic communities,” and specifically as a “private sector (that is, non-governmental) policymaking body.”1

For the government to dictate policy to ICANN simply because it happens to be headquartered in the United States would have dealt a crushing blow to its independence. Fortunately, ICANN had the courage to reject the .kids TLD, and the 2001 bill died in committee.

The next year, though, Congress came back with a more limited plan to create a children’s subdomain to the .us TLD: kids.us. And so President Bush signed into law the Dot Kids Implementation and Efficiency Act of 2002.

The .us TLD is administered by NeuStar, a private company under contract to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) in the Department of Commerce. In return for taking on the difficult task of making the new domain work, NeuStar was given a two-year extension on its contract to run the .us TLD.

The new law doesn’t have the same implications for international hegemony and control over private-sector activity as the earlier proposal. However, it is equally useless and still troubling in its implications for free speech. A letter from the Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT) to Senators Ron Wyden and George Allen raised this issue: “How will the NTIA decide whether the content in .us is in its view ‘suitable for minors’? . . . A parent in Manhattan may allow their 10-year-old to view material that a parent in Minneapolis may not.”2

Representative John Shimkus, the lead sponsor of the bill, justified it by asking, “I have repeatedly said that libraries have children’s book sections, why can’t the Internet have the same type of section devoted to children’s interests?”3 The analogy to the children’s section of a library is found in the text of the bill itself. One might reply that the fact that governments have authority over the organization of public libraries doesn’t imply they should have authority over the structure of the Internet.

No Cure-All

To begin carrying out its mandate, NeuStar has issued a document raising issues and seeking ideas on how to manage the domain. It is candid about the limits on what it can do: “From the start, it is important to be clear that the kids.us domain is not intended to be a cure-all solution to the many problems and dangers associated with children’s use of the Internet. . . . Given the technical and legal limitations that plague any Internet domain, a space dedicated to children can be targeted by bad actors or subject to technical problems. These facts demonstrate that there can be no truly safe place or ‘haven’ for children.”4

Most of the document is tentative. The proposed guidelines, though, show that the plan behind the domain goes beyond excluding what is “harmful” to children and aims at imposing positive content requirements. One proposal is that all content registrars in the kids.us domain must “commit to have some component of educational and informational content for children on their respective domains.” Pure entertainment sites would be excluded by this requirement, however child-safe they might be. In practice, sites would probably meet the requirement by having “educational” pages that few would bother to read.

The question of how, and to what extent, to enforce content regulations is wide open. NeuStar’s document deals with the question only by asking for suggestions on enforcement and monitoring procedures, and specifically asking that any comments discuss “the potential expenses and allocation of costs.” If sites are going to be regularly monitored by human beings, the job will be labor-intensive, expensive, and subject to the varying judgments of the reviewers. If software does the monitoring, looking for telltale words and phrases, it will be unreliable, frequently flagging innocent content while missing offensive material. Either way, the more aggressive the monitoring, the more content providers will restrict themselves to completely uncontroversial material, avoiding anything that might give a censor an excuse to apply sanctions.

Another disturbing proposal is to prohibit links from kids.us websites to unapproved domains. The NeuStar document presents this as an open question, but the text of the bill appears to require it.5 This would extend the reach of the reviewers to all websites, not just those that choose to use kids.us. That would not stop children from accessing other websites directly, but it would deny sites within the domain the freedom to point at huge amounts of valuable resources, including any domain based outside the United States. Some of the larger sites would undoubtedly create special editions for kids.us, but the large majority would not have the resources to duplicate their material in a government-approved package.

There have been scattered claims in the news media that parents would be able to set up web browsers so that their children could access only the kids.us domain. No existing browsers, as far as I can determine, have this capability, but in its most basic and restrictive form it wouldn’t be hard to implement. However, unless their children have their own computers, their parents would find themselves constantly having to turn the block on and off. People with older computers might not be able to upgrade their browsers. Also, such a block would be effective only if the domain strictly excludes not just links but gateway sites and search engines that allow indirect access to the rest of the Internet.

Specific prohibitions that NeuStar proposes include “content that displays, sells, or advocates the use of weapons,” “advocates or contemplates alcohol consumption,” “demonstrates explicit violence against people or animals,” or “features smoking or use of other tobacco products.” Another proposed prohibition concerns the famous seven dirty words. These proposals clearly go beyond protecting children to inculcating a particular political view, one which holds that merely seeing guns, drinking, or smoking is somehow harmful to children.

In the kids’ web wonderland there will be no wars, no scatological language, no one beaten up, no one even talking about having a drink, and no one smoking. Even Disney would have to edit its G-rated cartoon trailers carefully. Lord of the Rings, with its drinking songs, pipeweed, and wars, wouldn’t stand a chance of being approved. Neither, for that matter, would an unexpurgated edition of the Bible.

Ominous Loophole

A loophole in the NeuStar document gives still more opportunity for selective content control: “[W]e envision that content would be reviewed by the Content Manager(s) on the whole. If such content is deemed by the Content Manager(s) as having serious educational, informational, intellectual, literary, artistic, political, or scientific value for minors we believe that exceptions can be made to allow this content to appear in the kids.us domain.” But first a site manager has to get the attention of the Content Manager. As for those who don’t have the connections and persistence to get a live human being to grant an exception, they can go back to their .com domain.

But so can children, when they realize that there is nothing but safe, sanitized, utterly boring material in kids.us and a great deal of useful or entertaining material that can’t be reached from there. The huge amount of useful and interesting content locked away from them will give children ample motivation to discover how to get around the domain block, assuming parents can stand to keep the block turned on in spite of all the complaints they’ll hear.

Congress has done only what any private company in America could have done; it has established a subdomain of the national TLD and set conditions on how it can be used. But a private company would be wasting only its own money and reputation. By having federally designated monitors decide what is “suitable for children,” Congress is stepping into an area where it does not belong.

The kids.us domain will do nearly nothing to protect children, while giving the government an opportunity to engage in content regulation. The best scenario is that the domain will languish in obscurity and everyone will forget about it. The worst scenario is that it will languish in obscurity, but politicians will insist that its failure proves the need for wider powers. We will soon know which happens.


Notes

  1. “Background,” ICANN, July 1999, www.icann.org/general/background.htm; emphasis in original.
  2. Letter from Center for Democracy and Technology, September 12, 2002, www.cdt.org/dns/020912dotkids.shtml.
  3. Jim Wagner, “.Kids Finally Finds a Home in the House,” internetnews.com, May 21, 2002, www.internetnews.com/xSP/article.php/1142151.
  4. “Proposal for Guidelines and Requirements for the kids.us Second Level Domain,” NeuStar, Inc., August 2002.
  5. Dot Kids Implementation and Efficiency Act of 2002 (Enrolled as Agreed to or Passed by Both House and Senate), HR3833, 107th Congress, Sec. 157(c)(11).

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GARY MCGATH

Gary McGath is a freelance software engineer living in Nashua, New Hampshire.

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