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The Small, But Limitless World of .kids.us

Erica Wass is the editor and contributing author of the recently published book, "Addressing the World: National Identity and Internet Country Code Domains”, (Rowman & Littlefield, October 2003). This book is an edited collection of original essays by domain name administrators, academics, journalists and lawyers that examine the connections between various cultures and the use and regulation of their country code domain names. This is the second part of a three-part series. To read the first part of Erica Wass's report, click here.

Congress and the President of the United States believed so much in the idea that the Internet needed a "safe zone" for children that they passed a law designating such a space. One year after its passage I sought to examine the development of the .kids.us name space. I found an initiative that has yet to live up to its potential, but has a limitless, albeit difficult future ahead.

For years, many believed that the .us name space was underutilized. As a result in 2001, a private company called NeuStar, Inc. was delegated the authority to manage the entire .us name space by the U.S. Department of Commerce/ National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA). As part of the agreement, NeuStar was to set up a second-level space, called .kids.us that would be restricted to material appropriate for children.

The initiative caught the eye of Congress, which, for years, has tried to regulate children's access to sexually explicit material on the Internet. However, laws like the Communications Decency Act (CDA) and the Children's Online Protection Act (COPA), have been, in large part, declared unconstitutional for their vagueness and over breadth. There was a great sigh of relief when a slice of the .us namespace was mandated to provide a regulated, safe space for kids. "The Dot-Kids bill marks the fourth — and hopefully final — attempt by Congress to strike a careful balance between safeguarding children on the Internet while not infringing on First Amendment rights," said Senator John Ensign referring to the passage of the Dot-Kids Implementation and Efficiency Act of 2002 [PDF].

In May 2002, the House of Representatives voted to bar chat rooms, instant messaging and other interactive features from the .kids.us space unless NeuStar could certify that they were free of pedophiles and other online predators. NeuStar responded that Congress should slow down — that such restrictions would likely curb commercial development. When it came time for the President to sign the legislation in December 2002, the Senate and NeuStar managed to work out a deal, whereby if NeuStar would uphold its Federally mandated .kids.us obligations, it would receive an extra two years on its four-year contract to operate .us.

The bill was signed and the plans to build a defined space for kids under 13 were put into place.

According to NeuStar's Director of Business Development Melinda Clem, NeuStar executives and employees spent close to a year with the relevant offices on Capitol Hill and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) to take a serious look at the way the .kids.us space needed to be managed. Because the business model would be different, she said they did not want to run into the project, but instead sought to spend significant time looking at the framework and interests of various parties to determine the procedures from a policy perspective.

The result of this collective work, she says, is that NeuStar reached its contractual milestones ahead of schedule. For example, while they were required to launch the space within one year of enactment, after a five-month sunrise period to enable trademark holders to register their marks, they officially launched the space three months early.

Ironically, it is the characteristics that make the .kids.us space remarkable that also create its uncertain future.

According to Clem, the space is governed by two principal documents: a content policy and a governance policy. The content policy document defines the thirteen areas of content that are restricted from appearing in the space. For example, there are restrictions on mature content and pornography as well as technological restrictions. Sites within .kids.us cannot link to sites outside of the .kids.us space; they also cannot incorporate interactive communications like chat rooms, instant messaging, discussion boards and e-mail because, according to Clem, they are the primary forms of predators getting to children.

The governance policies define policies for when NeuStar finds alleged violations. According to Clem, violations are put into one of three categories of severity levels. The most severe is pornography, hate speech, and inappropriate language; these sites are removed immediately. To date, there have not been any such violations. Level 2 violations regard alcohol and tobacco and things that glorify them. Level 2 violators are given a few hours to cure the defect, though there have not yet been any level 2 violations. The third level of violation is the most common; it includes inadvertent links to content outside of the .kids.us space. NeuStar gives the registrant 12 hours to fix the problem. Clem says that because these problems are inadvertent — usually the function of transferring a .org, .com, or.edu site to the .kids.us space — they have not had to perform any site take-downs to date.

Of course, the majority of those who have registered sites have not yet made it through the content review processes. Despite having registered about 2,000 .kids.us domains, only seven have been activated.

The incentive to create a site within the .kids.us name space appears clear; it is a space directed toward children. It is a space created to enable children to be safe while surfing the Web. Many owners of sites directed toward children are now forced to reconcile this honorable goal with financial and theoretical concerns.

When Carol Myers, the owner of Stnicholas.kids.us, registered the domain, she already had developed a site at stnicholascenter.org and its .com variations. She says she wanted to be a part of the .kids.us space because she believes that parents should be careful about the media influences on their children. As a result, she paid $126 for each .kids.us name she registered, as well as the $250 per name content approval fee. She also bore the more hidden costs of hosting and design changes to fit the .kids.us regulations. "It is a big commitment, actually, to develop and maintain two sites," she says. The result, she says is that the kids.us site will be much more static than her main site. Myers worries that other non-profit sites, churches and other organizations that have a few excellent pages for children will not go through the hassle and expense of putting them on .kids.us.

According to Clem, the higher registration prices are a result of the need for extensive policy creation, while the content review fees go towards the review of sites and enforcement of those that contradict the regulations of the name space.

Perhaps more troubling for some is the burden the regulations put on the site content making it almost implausible that a site would only have a .kids.us address. Meyers recounts that the St. Nicholas Center site had to be extensively revamped. "All external links had to be removed," she said. "And we have hundreds. The e-cards, our small shop, the tell-a-friend-about-the-site forms, and all contact forms also had to be removed. We also took out the events section and St Nicholas church gazetteer, which depend heavily on links. Because so many things aren't on the .kids.us site, our main site is still important for anyone looking for more information and resources. The restrictions make the site less interactive than would appear necessary--and less fun."

Indeed, the restrictive linking and interactivity policies seem to turn a rich communications medium into just another example one-way communications. Why should children turn to the web, when they can access games on CD, video on TV, and text in various print media. While it is true that the ability to freely communicate can engender abuse, and, therefore, possible danger to children, it also enables a different type of learning and involvement. While such restrictive policies may provide protection for children, it also may insulate our children from the benefits of communicating online in a variety of ways with the rest of the world.

However, one way that the space and one's experience within it will be broadened is with the activation of more sites. Clem says that given that the space is still very young, she can see that it seems rather static. However, she adds that as the space grows there will be a critical mass of a greater variety of content. As a result, the linking rules, for example, will not seem as restrictive because there will be more content available in the .kids.us space to link to.

Of course, then comes the argument that just as a child — or an adult — can type a .kids.us address in their browser, so, too, can they type a non-.kids.us address. Clem said that NeuStar recommends that parents apply filters — that if they only want their kids to see .kids.us sites, that they designate that in their filtering software.
".kids.us is just one step; it is creating a space where parents can know that the content is good," Clem said. "We do not wish to act as the parent. We respect that parents have authority and we want them to monitor to their children and we want them to apply filters." The company has had discussions for creating other technological solutions to restricting the space, but, to date, Clem says there is not a lot of interest because of the size of the space.

Despite her enthusiasm for the prospects of the space, Myers says, "right now it would be too bad to restrict kids to the offerings on kids.us. There are better filtering products to put some limits on children's Internet activity while still offering more of the web's richness."

Still, Clem said that NeuStar predicts that many more sites will be added to the .kids.us domain throughout this year. She said that early registrants needed time to conform their sites to the mandates of the .kids.us space and will now be activating their content. Meanwhile she says the company is working to raise awareness about the sites among possible new registrants. "There is a lack of knowledge because it is new and it is different," Clem says. "There is a learning curve about the space and the availability of .kids.us and .us addresses, in general."

Myers would welcome awareness about the space. She said that there has not been a lot of traffic for the site, but "considering there has been virtually no publicity for the .kids.us site, that isn't a surprise." She said that her main .org site had 134,500 visits in December from 145 countries that looked at 888,500 pages, while the .kids.us site had a couple days with 300 visitors, but most were around 30.

Perhaps if .us sites were as commonly understood as their .com, .org and .edu counterparts, the .kids.us sites would appear to be the natural place for content directed toward American children. Although Clem says she knows of no other country code domains that have a second-level space devoted to content for children, she said that several representatives of other codes have told her that they are interested in watching the progress of the space. The irony, however, is that the success of .kids.us now depends on those who may only join once it is proven to be a success.

By Erica Wass, Journalist & Attorney
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Re: The Small, But Limitless World of .kids.us were.us  –  Feb 07, 2004 9:47 AM PDT

Big companies need to develop there kids.us names or give them to someone who will example AOL owns Health.kids.us why isn;t it developed they can;t afford the 250bucks application fee??once one big company gets in the directory it will be a domino effect,,im also looking for sponsors to keep my development going,, www.Games.Kids.us www.Space.Kids.us and more

Re: The Small, But Limitless World of .kids.us bottomline  –  Feb 12, 2004 4:08 PM PDT

If Melinda and Neustar are so worried about awareness then why are they silent on this requirement:

"Dot Kids Implementation and Efficiency Act” (Public Law 107-317)

"(f) EDUCATION - The United States Department of Commerce’s NTIA shall carry out a program to publicize the availability of the new domain and to educate the parents of minors regarding the process for utilizing the new domain in combination and coordination with hardware and software technologies that provide for filtering or blocking. The program under this subsection shall be commenced not later than 30 days after the date that the new domain first becomes operational and accessible by the public."

30 Days after the first Kids.us went live every parent and child in the USA was to be made aware of the kids.us

Was this Kids.us space nothing more than lip service to american parents by these autthors of the bill Congressmen John Shimkus (R-IL), Edward Markey (D-MA), and Fred Upton (R-MI)

Did Bush sign the Bill just for Image ?

Did Neustar take up the Kids.us just for the lucrative contract extension to run the parent dot .US namespace ?

We have a government agency not promoting Kids.us as required by law.

We have Politicians ... once again only playing the part of concern.. if it were real concern the Bills authors would have raised holy H after they were informed that their bill was not being implemented to the letter of the law. (and they were informed)

We have a Company in Neustar that appears to have no real interest in developing the .Kids.us namespace ..they have had a year to include developed Kid.us websites into the Kids.us Directory...Websites that are ready to go..

So everyone is Happy; the politicians look good in the public eye because they nmade it look like the care about the Kids..

The government agency required to publize the Kids.us namespace needs not comment on anything...they can simply hide within the beuracracy

And we have a company relieved they dont "really" have to incur the cost of ACTUALLY developing Kids.US..

Re: The Small, But Limitless World of .kids.us Eric Goldman  –  Feb 20, 2004 10:25 AM PDT

I think we should hold Congress partially responsible for the underwhelming response to .kids.us.  After all, Congress believed it could legislatively manufacture a zone for kids without any clear support that the market wanted this space in the first place.  Eric.

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