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The time has come for a strictly enforced porn-only top-level domain.

In a year that featured one of the most damaging natural disasters and one of the most controversial wars in U.S. history, it’s hard to focus on systematic problems in this country. We desperately want to cling to the positives amid crushing national debt and pending environmental disaster. I understand the urge to tune out the negatives: It’s just too depressing to face some of these realities. But we can’t just ignore them and hope that they’ll go away. We have to stay informed and ask ourselves what we can do to reverse these trends.

Allow me to add one more concern to your crowded plate: Our kids are less safe on the Internet than they ever have been. In my last column I talked about the dangers of video games that feature graphic sex and violence. This time I’d like to focus on parallel dangers on the Internet.

When I wrote a daily column for the online version of this magazine around the turn of the century, the problem of kid’s access to Internet pornography was a top-of-mind concern for this country. In nearly three years of writing ReleVents–a column that focused on the legal issues surrounding the emerging digital lifestyle–I probably wrote on the subject 20 times. Judging from the statistics, those 20 columns were the most popular pieces on a site that received around a million unique visits per month.

I don’t think readers are any less concerned about Internet pornography now than they were at the time. Their concerns have just been drowned out by natural disasters, terrorism, and our responses to it. Anyone with kids is torn between wanting their kids to enhance their education on the Web and worrying about their kids seeing or reading damaging material.

Because we can’t supervise our kids’ every move on the Web, we all load the latest content filtering programs, like CYBERsitter. But we all know the limitations in those programs. Because of the multiple meanings and interpretations of English (and other natural language) words and phrases, it’s relatively easy to foil programs like CYBERsitter by avoiding profanity or disguising the site as a legitimate information service. See Whitehouse.com for a small corner of the problem. Now multiply that by the number of nouns in the English language that are not profane.

The strange thing about this issue is that there’s a simple solution to the problem. I suggested five years ago in one of my first ReleVents columns that the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) should create a new top-level domain (TLD) for pornography–.xxx. I also suggested that Congress pass a law that says it’s illegal to publish pornographic content on sites outside of that domain. With those tools in hand, parents can set their CYBERsitter programs to filter out all sites with the .xxx domain. This would reduce the chance of kid’s seeing pornography while not limiting free speech.

After floating my suggestion, thousands of readers wrote their legislators and the President to implement this simple plan. Five years later, to my astonishment, the Department of Commerce, which oversees ICANN, has pushed for the new domain. It should be implemented as you read this.

To my dismay, ICANN insists that moving to the new domain will be voluntary. This has led to what the commerce department calls “unprecedented levels” of correspondence to the department opposing the new TLD. Concerned parents sent the correspondence because they know that giving pornographers a new TLD without requiring them to move off of the .com, .edu, and .net domains enables them to grow their Web hits without restricting their access to kids’ visits. It’s like building a big fence around the sheep’s pasture but leaving the main gate open for the wolves.

Again, we’re talking about people who will steal kids’ eyeballs to grow their Web hits; realists know that they won’t voluntarily move off their .com, .edu, and .net domains. However, if ICANN made the move mandatory, and Congress supported this by making it illegal to publish pornography except on .xxx domains, few would oppose it, except for the pornographers. I urge readers to continue their correspondence, but support the mandatory movement to .xxx. We can start the movement in this country and set an example for the rest of the world.

A less well known problem for kids’ safety on the Internet concerns bullying. Kids are using various chat rooms, instant messaging, and text messaging to reinforce their playground bullying. Actually, as described, the problem exists in all of cyberspace, not just the Internet. Just as adults flame and rant online when veiled behind the protection of their keyboards, so kids bully others without remorse in cyberspace.

I learned about this through a colleague at IBM named John Halligan. Halligan’s son Ryan committed suicide at age 13 in 2003 after being repeatedly victimized by bullies, who teased him with the aid of the various communication methods teens use.

Since learning about Ryan, I have discovered that cyberbullying is far more widespread than I could have ever imagined. Though, like rape, it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly just how widespread it is, a search of the term will convince you that it is a serious problem for teens. As in Ryan’s case, it usually follows an all-too-common script. Personal and embarrassing secrets spread like wildfire through text chats and IM faster than any face-to-face gossip can. Like urban legends, these secrets turn into elaborate lies used to taunt kids who are just a little different from the “cool” kids. Within days, every hallway or playground encounter becomes a nightmare of taunts and laughs, reinforced through technology.

The difference between old-fashioned bullying and cyberbullying is the spread of the threats and taunts. Without the aid of technology, kids might face a few determined bullies, and can merely avoid them. But if everyone in school has access to lies and gossip almost instantaneously, kids can’t escape, not even to cyberspace. The bullies are waiting for them in chat rooms, ready to pounce at the first sign of a familiar handle.

Unlike adults, who can douse flames or ignore the perpetrators, teens often struggle to cope with bullying and taunting. This is one reason why the rate of teen suicide has risen with the rise of personal communication technology. The good news is, like CYBERSitter, there is a tool to help minimize cyberbullying, at least on the computer. MindOH! offers free downloadable tools to help combat cyberbullying.

The most effective tools we have to keep our kids safe on the Internet are awareness and activism. Learning about the problems and taking decisive action to help keep our kids safe are not matters of choice. We simply can’t bury our heads in the sand and ignore these problems. We must take action to protect our kids.

James Mathewson is an editor and Web strategist for IBM PartnerWorld.

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