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Such a Deal!

By Annalee Newitz

AFTER I'D RECEIVED close to a dozen spam emails and faxes from a website called dotsex.com, I decided to pay them a visit. Apparently, for an annual fee of just 59 bucks, I could own a domain name with .sex at the end of it! Just think, I could buy www.techsploitation.sex, and get tons and tons of traffic! Wow. It almost made me want to sign up to be a dotsex "affiliate" (only 500 bucks!), and try to sell .sex domains to other suckers--er, I mean entrepreneurs.

You see, for all intents and purposes, .sex doesn't exist as a top level domain (TLD). There are only a small, finite number of officially recognized TLDs like .com and .edu. The nonprofit organization in charge of assigning TLDs, known as the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN--www.icann.org), just recently determined that it would add a handful of new TLDs to the official list. These include things like .museum, .tv and .biz.

There's a very political side to all this. Certain malcontents and freedom fighters aren't exactly happy with the idea of an elite group of Internet nerds telling them what kinds of TLDs they can have. Since 1998, when the U.S. government granted ICANN its present powers over TLDs among other things, anti-ICANN groups have sprung up all over the net (see www.icannwatch.org and www.open-rsc.org). Some of the protesters are companies who spent the $50,000 application fee to have new TLDs considered by ICANN, only to have their requests turned down. Others are simply against having major Internet decisions made by a single group they didn't even elect.

The chaos around ICANN has led directly to questionable businesses like dotsex.com. Fact is, you can legally buy any .sex TLD you want. But it won't be supported by ICANN's 26 domain name service (DNS) servers, which hold in their collective memories every single domain name whose TLD is among the chosen few.

This wouldn't be such a big deal if it weren't for the fact that practically every piece of Internet-related software has been written to access ICANN's DNS servers whenever you type in a website address. That means when Jane Horny types www. bruce brugmann.sex into Netscape on her iMac, her browser will automatically search for this address in ICANN's servers and come back at her with a "not found" alert. You can change the DNS settings on your browser, of course, if you know how. There are potentially thousands of "alternate" DNS servers out there set up by anti-ICANN types or companies like New.net who sell nonofficial TLDs. If you type the addresses of these alternate DNS servers into the appropriate places in your browser, you'll be able to see domains with various random unofficial TLDs like .sex or .family. But most ordinary people using the Internet would rather bash their heads into a cement wall than try to figure all this crap out. And these are the very people dotsex.com is trying to target.

ICANN has already issued a statement saying that it is unlikely to approve new TLDs already being sold, because it's likely that multiple people are being suckered into buying the same domain names and if those names became official there would be total insanity. And the Federal Trade Commission has issued a consumer alert (www.ftc.gov/bcp/conline/pubs/alerts/domainalrt.htm) about "domain name registration scams."

When I called ICANN to find out if dotsex.com could actually be considered fraudulent, spokesperson Fernando Villegas admitted that they'd already received a lot of complaints about the company. "They do mention somewhere on the site that you have to have extensions to view the .sex domains, all of which is perfectly legal."

The exact words on the dotsex website about all this? It says, "The .sex domain names . . . [can] be viewed on the Internet by making a slight alteration to your web browser." Yeah, right. And if you believe that, I've got a giant multinational software company to sell you.

Annalee Newitz ([email protected]) is a surly media nerd who reminds you that your DNS server was probably determined by corporations.

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From the September 5-12, 2001 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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