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Peter Cochrane's Uncommon Sense: Porn Or No Porn?
Don't demonise the net - let it work for us

The last five years have seen thousands of arrests across the planet relating to child pornography with the confiscation of tens of thousands of obscene images stored on computers. The most recent crack down meant it felt like hardly a day went by without a public figure being arrested. All are tracked down by their credit card details recovered from hard drives by the police, across several nations.

Many of those arrested deny the charges and you have to wonder at their stupidity in using their own credit card, their morals in wanting to participate in this awful trade and the likelihood that they may be in fact innocent. What if their card details were stolen? Only time - and the courts - will tell.

Humans have engaged in all forms of pornography for thousands of years. In Elizabethan England, for example, young girls were often married at the age of 11 or 12 to much older men. In ancient Rome,

Egypt, Greece and China sexual practices and publications were at least the equal of those today. Only we now have the technology to far surpass any of the artistic rendering and static images of the ancients as well as a vastly superior distribution network.

When photography first became commercially available a very old industry soon realised the potential and a new phase began for pornography. The ability to create high quality images was suddenly available for widespread and rapid distribution. Soon the dirty-mackintoshes and postcard sellers arrived, followed by the development of movies, TV, VHS, PC, internet, camcorders and digital cameras.

Today the porn industry is ubiquitous, easily accessible and at prices all can afford. It is a global industry that overshadows Hollywood and rivals the production and supply of many manufactured goods. It is also that component of cable, satellite and hotel TV that makes them sell. In general everyone denies viewing but the figures tell a different story. In some sense we are all guilty - depending on how pornography is defined.

Some years ago I was engaged in net porn studies covering areas including availability, lack of national control, the meaningless nature of international borders and legal ineffectiveness. But the most important aspect was the all too apparent threat to children and the need for safe sites.

At first it was necessary to search for porn and the content and access was crudely presented. But over the past decade the industry has become very sophisticated with the best-engineered sites and interfaces. You no longer have to try hard to find good quality porn. And once you have clicked they can lock you in. Images appear thick and fast on your screen. Not surprisingly the dominant searches on the web rapidly became sex related, only to be overtaken by MP3 in recent months.

As I travel the planet I occasionally scan the adult pay TV channels in hotels and homes and from time to time search the web. As far as I can see there is almost everything imaginable for free, and mostly harmless, in the strict sense, to normal adults. The content is vast in breadth and depth with a wide range of depravities you wish you hadn't seen. I once recall watching a TV programme about landmines and what they do to people and I wish I hadn't seen that either. But, in both cases, I think we need to see a sample, to get the idea, to understand what is out there - what is good, bad and evil.

Should we be worried about all this? Should we try to clamp down or should we just ignore it and continue to liberalise and relax our laws and policing? In reality there is little or no chance of invoking any effective control.

So what of those evil people who seek to involve children and other innocent groups? The immediate reaction is to say we must stop them by applying absolutely draconian controls. However, like much of our new economy, I suspect we should do the opposite. We should encourage these individuals and groups to make themselves known on the web. We need to gather and record their details, find out where and who they are. They are never going to go away. If we legislate, we drive them underground where they are very difficult to track down and become an even bigger danger.

Rather than panic at the rising tide of porn, and despite the fact that years ago someone tried to abduct one of my children, I think we should relax, draw a line at which society deems to be acceptable (and that is now almost certainly whatever consenting adults choose to do in private) and focus our limited resources on those dedicated to harming the young, innocent and defenceless.

The really good news is this: We can do this at very low cost and very effectively over the web. And a really wise move would be to invest in the development of all technologies that can be used to guard and protect our children.

We should also try to keep a real perspective and remember that the upside of the web is massive compared to the pornographic downside. Paper images, letters, photographs and movies via the postal system are a really uncontrollable proposition. This is a global activity that can be more easily controlled by the net when it's on the net.

Written over a coffee at Starbucks having just received a spam porno email and after walking by a collocated electronics and 'adult' store in London. The porn store was empty and the electronics store was full! Despatched to from my G4 laptop via my Motorola 2.5G Timeport over a 9.6Kbps dial-up connection.