Stemming the tide of internet porn     

Written by Michael Cook    

Friday, 02 September 2005 

It's commonly thought that filtering objectionable sites and email from the internet is virtually impossible. It's not true: we just have to try.

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.

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 stuff.

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 knowledge."

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 presentation
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 Review, 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.
"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 wildlife.

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