Gated or X-Rated?
From the July 19, 2010, issue of NR.


Jonah Goldberg

Here is one proposal. Right now, there are many “top-level domains” — .com, .org, .biz, .gov, .edu., etc. We propose the creation of a .kids domain that would be strictly reserved for material appropriate for minors 18 years and under. Most sites would probably be able to mirror themselves on a .kids domain with little to no extra effort. Most corporations, schools, and other organizations have perfectly harmless material that kids and teens can view without causing their parents to stay up at night. The sites of the Smithsonian, McDonald’s, Disney, PBS, and countless other institutions are already perfectly safe for minors. Other websites would need a little tweaking, but not much. Only a relative handful of them — porn, dating services, adult-themed chat rooms, R-rated movie sites, et al. — would be explicitly barred from the .kids domain. The others would simply have to tone down or pare down their offerings.

Ironically, a partial model for a .kids domain can be found in the .xxx domain recently approved by the international body governing domain names (ICANN). A strange alliance has formed between some porn and Christian-conservative groups. The former don’t like the new domain name because they fear it will encourage censorship down the road; the latter oppose it because it is voluntary, which means that porn sites can still exist in the .com universe, and because it will further legitimize porn.

Whatever the merits and flaws of the .xxx domain, a .kids domain would be a far more useful tool for parents — and one neither Christian groups nor the porn industry should oppose. Social conservatives recognize the importance of providing wholesome environments for children, while porn providers insist that they have no interest in hawking their wares to minors.

And our hunch is that mainstream businesses would welcome a .kids domain. The free market is already responding to the faults and limitations of the Internet’s Wild West character: Apple has enjoyed its brilliant success in part because it has addressed the desires of customers (who value ease of use and grace of design) ahead of others less attuned to consumer demand. Jobs clearly sees a wave coming — broad demand for intelligent content filters to help impose some commonsensical order on the chaos — and he plans to ride it.

Merely creating a new domain wouldn’t create a neighborhood or safe zone for kids. But it would give the private sector the wherewithal to help parents, without handing jurisdiction of content over to the government or requiring parents to rely on notoriously unreliable filters. Programming a browser to recognize only a .kids address would be simple. Devices and software could be designed to make it impossible for kids to wander into bad neighborhoods.

For good or ill, the days when the consumer had to schlep down to a theater, video store, or newsstand to buy porn are over. But the red-light district was never on Main Street next to the ice-cream parlors and the family movie theater. All we are proposing is to increase the distance between the edgier and seamier aspects of the Internet and the mainstream parts. With a .kids domain, the Wild West of the Internet would still be there, but people who didn’t want to let their children experience it wouldn’t have to (even pioneers didn’t let their small children wander too far from the homestead). Nothing would be taken away; new options would merely be created.

Any attempt to make such reforms a class issue should be resisted. As with everything involving technology, the wealthy will be early adopters of innovation. This is welcome, because without early adopters, prices don’t fall and technologies don’t advance. Yet the innovation we propose is remarkably “progressive,” in that it would bring greater benefit to families lower on the income ladder: Working and single parents have fewer opportunities to monitor their children’s activities.

This is not a sweeping argument for imposing our vision — or any vision — on the Internet. Rather, it is a modest call to facilitate the emergence of a richer Internet culture by allowing the vast majority of its users to vote with their mice, and the market to respond accordingly. Cyberspace is a big place, with plenty of room for the Wild West saloon and the gated community — and plenty of stuff in between.

Jonah Goldberg is a contributing editor of National Review and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. Nick Schulz is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and editor of its journal, The American. This article originally appeared in the July 19, 2010, issue of NR.