College.xxx? Schools snap up porn domains

St. Louis Post-DispatchNovember 14, 2011 

— The world is getting closer to the launching of a new Internet address system for pornography providers, and there are some eye-opening names being registered. Among them: tarheels.xxx, washu.xxx and mizzou.xxx

Don't, however, expect to find naked co-eds at either of these sites.

In what amounts to a defensive maneuver, schools across the nation are snapping up the .xxx domain names that match their federally registered trademarks. It's a matter of trying to keep them out of the wrong hands.

UNC-Chapel Hill and Duke University have both filed applications to register domain names for their trademarks.

"We're purchasing some domain names to make sure that they're not used for purposes that would confuse people about the university's involvement," said Michael Schoenfeld, a Duke spokesman. Schoenfeld said Duke has bought several domain names but would not give their exact addresses.

"The Internet is a very creative place, and I don't think anybody could possibly secure every possible combination that could ultimately be embarrassing to an individual, company or university," he said.

In addition to tarheels.xxx, UNC has also filed to register UNC.xxx and UniversityofNorthCarolina.xxx, spokesman Mike McFarland said.

Getting first dibs

With the impending launch of the new .xxx top level domains this year, everyone with a trademark had a chance to reserve names in a "sunrise phase." Essentially, it provides some protection for organizations against domain prospectors who grab sites to use or sell at a profit.

In theory, the .xxx top level domain will give adult content providers a natural place to be on the Internet. But it has been criticized by the porn industry, which worries that this is the first step in forcing all adult providers to move to the more easily blocked domain addresses.

Against this backdrop, universities and other organizations have been forced to decide whether it's worth the time, trouble and money (about $200 per domain) to take control of their .xxx sites.

Some experts don't think there's a lot to be worried about for the vast majority of institutions.

"Then again, it's just a couple of hundred bucks. So I don't see any reason not to do it," said Greg Jackson, vice president for policy and analysis at Educause, a nonprofit that promotes the use of technology in higher education.

That has been the motivating factor for the St. Louis College of Pharmacy, which recently picked up stlcop.xxx. That's not exactly a name that screams porn.

"Not really," agreed Chad Shepherd, the school's vice president of information technology. "But, you know, it's better to be safe than sorry."

The school has made a practice of grabbing all the stlcop versions it can get its hands on, including .org, .tv, .info and .biz. Unfortunately, it has not been able to get .com, which still belongs to a domain prospector.

Avoiding confusion

Schoenfeld said Duke, too, makes a common practice of buying domain names for future or preventive use.

"We are securing domain names all the time for new programs, for changes in programs," he said. "Most of them are for the purposes of actually using them, but we also from time to time will purchase domain names that might be used for purposes that would confuse people about whether the university was involved."

The decision to buy a domain also can be about protecting a school from unintended harm. Consider the case of Washington University. It may be that no one would ever think to combine pornography with the St. Louis institution.

But the school does share a name with a female character, Washu Hakubi, from the world of Japanese animated cartoons. The anime genre has inspired a subset of cartoons heavy on sex and violence, leaving open the possibility that Washington University could find itself an accidental victim.

"It wouldn't necessarily be anyone who even knew much about us," said Karen Daubert, the university's trademark and brand manager.

Staff writer Tori Stilwell contributed to this report.

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