Stemming the tide of internet porn

After the horrific murder of a 31-year-old teacher by a man obsessed
by violent internet pornography, the UK government wants to  ban
downloading and possessing such material.1  The government is not
bothered by plain vanilla “mainstream pornography”. But it wants to
stop the “extensive availability” of perverse images and videos of
bestiality, necrophilia, rape or torture. All this, and more, is
available at the click of a mouse even to children — in Britain and
nearly everywhere else.

Predictably, however revolting this crime might have been and however
nighmarish the twisted world it sprang from, the merest whiff of
censorship spooked many critics. “Censor the internet? Try catching
the wind,” said the London Times.2  

Even the government was inclined agree. “The global nature of the
internet means that it is very difficult to prosecute those responsible
who are mostly operating from abroad,” it says. It has a point.
According to the Internet Watch Foundation, a British organisation
which monitors illegal content on the internet, only about one per cent
of illegal child abuse images are produced in the UK. In a sort of
rerun of the Cold War, the two countries with the biggest arsenals of
child pornography are the United States and Russia. Between them, they
produce 66 per cent of all of it and 72 per cent of the pay-per-view

And as in the Cold War, other countries feel helpless. Even if they
were determined to stem the surging tide of internet pornography, they
have been sucked into the regulatory vacuum of the super-porn powers.
It is simply impossible for satellite states to censor the internet,
they say.

But are governments incapable of censoring pornography or just
unwilling? According to speakers at a recent Australian seminar, the
real problem is a failure of government will. Effective filtering
technology exists. It just has to be used.

Admittedly, the problem involves far more than technology. Striking the
proper balance between freedom of speech and the common good, between
indignant libertarians and angry parents is the main hurdle. Censoring
pornography could make it possible for government snoops to invade our
privacy and meddle in politics. Another excuse is the dampening
effect on business. As a Malaysian internet service provider argues,
“Curiosity is what fuels people’s quest for knowledge. If we were to
censor the internet, we will also stem curiosity, which would be
detrimental to the country, because we will also curtail the quest for

But a debate about the desirability of censoring pornography ought to
begin with the facts on its feasibility. And it seems that industry
figures feel that it is feasible. To say otherwise is a “total
untruth”, Paul McRae, CEO of the Australian IT company Security
Principles, told MercatorNet.

Scrubbing the internet squeaky clean is impossible, he told the Sydney
seminar in a presentation5  on “whole country filtering”. Spammers
and pornographers are ingenious and well-funded. Internet address can
be moved or renamed quickly and easily. Emails evolve quickly to avoid
detection. In any case, lots of people want to view pornography.
Pornography will always exist because there will always be a demand.

However, McRae and other filtering experts maintain that it can be
slowed down — dramatically. Internet Sheriff, another Australian
company, claims that its innovative technology can filter out 85 per
cent of pornographic sites. It has just won a contract with the
Malaysian government to do just that for the whole country.

Assuming that the only challenge was technological, Australian experts
say that it would be quite feasible in their country because of its
geographic isolation. All of its internet traffic has to pass through a
handful of “pipelines” which could be filtered.

Filtering opponents counter that it would be impossible to keep track
of these sites. According to the Internet Filter
, there are 4.2 million pornographic websites — 12 per cent of the
world total. And they are constantly changing their addresses to escape
detection. Lists become outdated as soon as they are made.

However, tracking addresses is not the only way to detect pornography.
Internet Sheriff’s software identifies pornographic patterns in the
computer code which creates images and sites.

In any case, several countries already censor internet traffic and
successfully block pornography. Take Iran, for instance. The Berman
Center for Internet & Society, at Harvard Law School, says that it
has one of the most sophisticated government filtering systems in the
world.6  “The Iranian state has effectively blocked access of its
citizens to many pornographic online sites, most anonymiser tools
(which allow users to surf the internet without detection), a large
number of sites with gay and lesbian content, some politically
sensitive sites, women’s rights sites, and certain targeted Web logs
(‘blogs’), among other types of sites.”

Iran is a repressive theocracy with an appalling human rights record.
It’s embarrassing to say “me, too” to its ayatollahs when you are
merely interested in protecting kids from internet pornography. But
Iran’s relative success at least suggests that technology can filter
objectionable material on a massive scale.

(Interestingly, Iran uses American list-based software developed by a
US-based company, Secure Computing, for detecting these sites. In other
words, Iran has partially outsourced its censorship standards to the
Great Satan. Secure Computing claims that its product, SmartFilter, is
being used illegally.)

Now if this is possible for Iran, surely it is possible for other
countries — if they wanted to. Admittedly it will be impossible to shut
the tap off entirely, but the effluent gushing through the Web could be
reduced to a trickle. Japan, for instance, is an island nation. If it
filtered its internet traffic, it would no longer be host to 80% of the
child abuse content on web-based bulletin boards throughout the world.

The problem is urgent. Statistics on the size of the pornography market
vary enormously. The estimates of the Internet Filter Review are
relatively conservative — but grim enough. The value of internet
pornography is said to be US$2.5 billion annually — in a total
pornography market of $57 billion. An estimated 25 per cent of all
search engine requests are for pornography.

But far more disturbing is the guesstimate that the largest consumers
of internet pornography are 12 to 17-year-olds. About 90 per cent of 8
to 16-year-olds have viewed the stuff, mostly while doing their
homework. The average age of their first exposure is just 11. And it is
difficult to train children not to access these sites because some
pornographers use favourite children’s characters to disguise them,
including Pokemon and Action Man.  

This puts paid to the argument that “in the end, it’s the
responsibility of the consumer”. Spammers are sending children
pornography, virtually force-feeding them with the stuff. In many
cases, kids simply don’t have a choice about whether to see it: it pops
up on the screen while they are doing an assignment on African

Besides, countries all over the world are rolling out internet
connections as fast as they can. The economic performance of their
governments is being gauged by the proportion of homes with
broadband.7  Politicians can’t have it both ways: putting
broadband into as many homes as possible and then shifting all
responsibilityfor safe surfing onto overburdened parents who are too busy to monitor what their kids are doing on the computer.

Surely there is a technology fix. The country which sent a man to the
Moon can’t solve the tsunami of internet porn? Tell me another one.
Maybe we can’t get rid of all of it. But surely we can aim at ensuring
that only 60 per cent of children find it when they do their homework.
Or even — let’s think big! — 30 per cent. Why do parents have to accept
a benchmark of 90 per cent? The difficulty of filtering without
becoming a police state like Iran can be overcome somehow. Where
there’s a will, there’s a way. For the sake of our children, can we
really afford not to try?

Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet

(1) Consultation: On the possession of extreme pornographic material. August 2005.

 (2) David Rowan. “Censor the internet? Try catching the wind”. London Times. August 31.

 (3) Record breaking 6 months for Internet Watch Foundation. July 25, 2005.

 (4) “Is censorship the answer?” The Star online. August 2.

 (5) “Internet and Pornography – Feasibility for Whole of Country Filtering”. Canberra, August 2005

 (6) Internet Filtering in Iran in 2004-2005: A Country Study.

 (7) World Internet Users and Population Stats


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