The following article was published in the Irish Times on 23 September 2011. Read it on the Irish Times website here.
An internet venture by the ‘acceptable face of porn’ stresses child protection and regulation, writes KARLIN LILLINGTON
CALIFORNIAN JOAN Irvine is instantly likable. Outgoing, charming, immaculately dressed for business, mature – she exactly fits the professional image of what she is: the executive director of a new international organisation. She blends perfectly into the high-end business tete-a-tete atmosphere of the tea room in the Four Seasons hotel in Ballsbridge.
“People always say, ‘You look like a newscaster’ – or sometimes, like their mother,” she says, laughing.
It is only when her voice occasionally drops discreetly to note some particular point about her relatively new appointment, or the industry her organisation represents, that one is reminded incongruously that Irvine is the acceptable face of the pornography industry.
Or rather, as she always carefully and professionally puts in: the adult entertainment industry.
Irvine, who has spent nearly a decade advocating a responsible side to a controversial industry, runs IFFOR (the International Foundation For Online Responsibility), the organisation that makes the policy for the soon-to-be-launched .xxx internet domain.
A company called ICM Registry, which won the right to manage the new domain from the global net administration body ICANN, is business administrator for the domain.
Almost immediately, the proposed domain became embroiled in controversy. On one side, the industry feared it would be forcibly shunted off to the domain and would have to pay a premium for .xxx ($100), compared to the cheap .coms most already inhabit (widely available for less than $10).
On the other side, some – from politicians to religious groups – argued the domain was “legitimising” the online pornography industry and could end up helping promote illegal activity such as child pornography.
Eventually, ICANN approved .xxx as a sponsored industry domain, in which part of the management agreement stipulates the creation of a policy body – IFFOR, paid for directly by a portion of every .xxx registration – $10 of the $100 fee.
The group’s policy council has representation from experts in privacy and security, child protection and free speech, as well as nine adult industry figures. The board is chaired by the chief executive of ICM Registry, Stuart Lawley. One expects policy discussions will be a lot more interesting than at a typical business board meeting.
Politicking around the domain indicates that some clearly feel sceptical of the adult industry’s commitment to self-regulation, monitoring and child protection. However Irvine – a recognised advocate for child protection who worked to develop labelling technologies for adult websites, and who has received a commendation award from the US Congress – says any serious adult business wants to focus on adult customers and keep children well away.
For adult sites to get a .xxx domain, they must go through a complex process that includes verified contact checks, she says. Domains will automatically be bundled with McAfee security software to monitor for the malware and viruses often associated with rogue pornography sites. Sites within the .xxx domain will also be labelled so that parental control systems will pick them up.
“There are benefits to adult entertainment companies to buy a .xxx and there will be returns on investment,” she says. Along with having McAfee protecting the site and having child protections built into the domain, ICM Registry will be developing a .xxx portal to help people find sites, she says.
“A lot of it is so people can feel more comfortable. A lot of people were getting scared to go to adult sites, afraid there’d be child pornography and viruses.”
The association in the public mind between adult entertainment and child pornography is a frustration for the industry, she adds, noting that studies show about 90 per cent of child pornography originates from sources such as organised crime. “Everyone assumes it’s the [adult] industry, but it’s not.” The industry has every reason to want to self-regulate, support child protection and reinforce its distance from illegal activity, she argues.
Using .xxx “is going to be an option, not mandatory” for adult sites – and she says ICM Registry feels so strongly about this that it would take action if an individual country decided to make using the domain mandatory.
However, for now it appears domain registration companies are heavily marketing .xxx domains in the initial registration period towards non-adult sites, arguing they need to “protect their brand” and prevent an adult site from nabbing the .xxx version of their name.
Irvine stepped into her current rather unusual role – one day she might be meeting government and law enforcement agencies, the next, attending an adult industry trade show – after nine years of running ASACP (Adult Sites Advocating Child Protection). ASACP is an adult entertainment industry-led organisation created in part to address public concern in the US about child pornography, but also to consider ways to prevent access to adult sites by children.
She found the ASACP role on online recruitment site Monster.com – yes, really, she says – when she was looking for ways to move beyond previous IT industry positions.
Was it daunting to make the jump into ASACP and the adult entertainment industry?
“No. I thought about it, yes, but then I decided, I don’t care, it’s a child-protection role and I also saw that all the skill sets I had were a good fit. When I came on board in 2002, it was very grassroots and volunteer-based. We were able to build out a very vibrant child-protection agency and develop policies. People did ask ‘how could you be going into this industry?’ Well, it is an industry, and I really like working for associations.”
As a result, she feels she was a good choice for the IFFOR role. “I understand the policies, I understand the business. Stuart [Lawley] felt it was very important that someone who was involved in the industry was brought in.”
She is excited by the opportunities IFFOR presents for greater involvement with issues than she had at ASACP. She notes plans are in place to create a fund for grants that can support research, creating tools for web users, developing educational programmes for parents, supporting charities working with children, and “advocacy efforts and lobbying in different regions”.
She says she has seen the online adult entertainment industry “grow up and go from a wild west to needing to have structure”, including accountants, legal advice and technical and business experts (the dotcom crash a decade ago sent many unemployed techies into the industry, she notes).
“What a dotcom needs, the adult industry needs. Also, it is a maturing industry. People who had built up companies are now wanting to cash out. There are a lot of mergers and acquisitions. It is also facing a lot of the same problems as all media organisations: piracy and lots of free content.”
She is interested in how the new domain and its administration will challenge the “US-centric” nature of the industry. “Now, they’re talking to the European industry. You find people are doing business partnerships, affiliate programmes, site translation – all those issues other industries have had. Plus you have all the different regional laws.”
What does she look forward to in her new role? “The challenge – it is the real challenge of how do you provide self regulation in a useable format for everybody. There is an excitement about being able to help mould an organisation and industry.”
But . . . what does she tell people she does for a living? She smiles. “To most I say – I develop policies for the internet and leave it at that. It just happens to be the .xxx domain.”