If finding a way to control what kids see on television and movies, hear on CDs and play on video games seems daunting, try controlling what they access over the Internet.
Not only is the content of the actual Web site at issue, there is the problem of who and what is being advertised on the site, then the question of what is going on at other sites that visitors can link to.
These are some of the issues that a Burbank-based firm and three of its rivals are grappling with as they apply to become registrars and hosts of a new category of web addresses ending with ".kids."
.Kids Domains Inc. in Burbank, along with Falls Church, Va.-based DotKids Inc., Palm Desert-based Blueberry Hill Communications Inc. and ICM Registry Inc. in Toronto, have each shelled out $50,000 hoping to become the gatekeeper of the new domain name, which would join the now-ubiquitous dot-com address on the Internet.
Applications, due earlier this month, were submitted to the Internet Corp. for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) and are currently going through a public comment period. ICANN, the Marina del Rey-based group that hands out Internet addresses, has said it plans to add only a few new domain names, and dot-kids may not even be among them. (A decision is expected by the end of the year.)
If it is, however, the right to the registry would likely be a windfall for the winning company. By one estimate, more than 12 million companies and groups would seek to register names in the dot-kids space within the first few years of operation. Even at nominal registration fees for the address, that could amount to billions in revenues even before annual registration renewals are figured into the equation.
Each of the applicants claims that providing a dot-kids address would give children a sort of safe-haven, cyberspace park, free from inappropriate subject matter. And, of course, it would give companies and groups seeking to target children automatic brand recognition as a kids' site.
"I have two young daughters and two stepsons, and we see what's out there," said Page Howe, chairman of .Kids Domains Inc. "We're just creating a separate place that parents can depend on to abide by a certain set of rules."
Howe said the company has already spent about $150,000 on its application, including legal and other fees. If approved, Howe expects to ante up another $500,000 from his private investment partnership for the venture. He has also lined up another $10 million from ZA Associates, a New Jersey investment banking firm.
"We expect there to be a rush of initial applications, and we have to be ready from a customer service point of view," said Howe.
First, however, .Kids Domains and the other applicants will have to convince ICANN that their companies have the technical know-how to manage the registry and that their criteria for handing out addresses reflect good social policy.
That won't be easy
Even if standards for a kids' site could be developed for the United States, it may not pass muster with the other cultures and countries that share the Internet. Arbitrary standards would have to be interpreted and policed, and many restrictions could open the hosting company up to a variety of lawsuits from those excluded under the rules.
.Kids Domains wants to limit the address to those sites that are free of content involving tobacco, alcohol and other products restricted to adults by law. Companies seeking to use the domain name would sign a contract agreeing to the restrictions and undergo periodic audits. Parents would rely on filtering software and community policing efforts for additional controls.
"We want to come in black and white on a lot of legal issues, and then let our community help us develop what's specifically appropriate," said Howe.
The restrictions may seem minimal at a time when a debate is raging over violence in the entertainment industry and Hollywood has become the target of probes by the Federal Trade Commission and the Justice Department.
But .Kids Domains is actually the only company applying for any types of restrictions at all, however limited.
For the most part, all the companies applying for the dot-kids domain name fear that setting restrictions at the front end would offend some constituency and leave the company open to lawsuits. And, if the comments logged in on ICANN's Web site so far are any indication, they are right.
Among the 50-odd comments received by mid-October, a number support the ideas submitted by .Kids Domains, Blueberry Hill and DotKids. But there were also many comments from those like "momof2" who wrote, "Restricting dot-kids is saying that Mr. Howe knows better than I on what is good and safe for my kids on the Internet."
While ICANN has serious issues to mull, waiting to resolve them would likely dilute the attractiveness of the Web address for many potential corporate users.
"If we don't get (the domain name) this time, if we have to wait another five years, maybe it's too late," said Craige Campbell, president and CEO of Blueberry Hill. "If companies spend millions on kids' Web sites, they're not going to uproot them and change names."
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