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A plan for a new internet “domain” for pornography has once again been shelved, dealing another blow to the US-backed addressing system that acts as the glue holding together the unified global internet.

The setback is likely to add to pressure stresses that could eventually fragment the internet, breaking it into a collection of separate national systems, some internet experts warned.

It comes as the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (Icann), the organisation that administers the current addressing system under licence from the USCommerce Department, faces renewed unrest over its slow progress towards introducing domain names in languages other than English.

“If Icann and the US fail to respond to growing global concerns around internet governance, fragmentation is the likely outcome,” said Michael Geist, professor of internet law at the University of Ottawa.

Pressure from conservative Christian groups in the US, which has a veto over the internet addressing system, led the organisation last year to put off introducing a new “.xxx” domain for pornography on the internet. That drew international complaints that the US exercised too much power over the internet and added to a European-backed movement to shift control of the online medium to an international group.

Supporters of the .xxx address suffix argued that it would have helped to protect children and others from accidental exposure to internet pornography, particularly if stronger filters were used to screen out explicit material from other internet domains.

Icann’s board decided to delay the plan again on Friday at a meeting in New Zealand. The latest hold-up was to allow time for the company which had applied to administer the new domain to prove that it had adequate safeguards in place, said Paul Twomey, ICANN’s chief executive officer.

However, the plan also continued to attract broader opposition, with the US once again understood to have lodged its opposition to the idea. This time, ICANN also faced opposition from an unspecified number of other governments. Although not having the veto power of the US, a government advisory committee set up to respond to Icann proposals said “several” of its members were against the idea.

The Australian government has already spoken out publicly against an internet porn address, while a report in New Zealand claimed that Iran was also opposed.

The latest dispute over the internet’s addressing system comes as ICANN faces growing pressure to extend its addressing system in scripts other than roman, or which include accents. While conceding that the organisation may have moved slowly on this issue in the past, Mr Twomey said that it was moving ahead as fast as it could with technical tests of an international naming system later this year.

Responding to the risk that the delays might lead some countries to establish their own addressing systems, effectively in effect creating rival internets, he added: “Anyone can set up an alternative root system – the difference is, our root is the one that a billion people follow.”

While China has tested its own addressing system, it has so far done this within the ICANN system, Mr Twomey said. “There is no sense that they are talking about breaking themselves off from the global internet. They are well aware of the benefits,” he added.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.
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