Internet Pornography: hazard, or hype?

Duncan Langford


When Press and public address the subject of the Internet, one issue in particular always seems relevant. Concern over the perceived ease with which pornography can be obtained electronically is a perennial favourite for discussion. The topic is seldom treated lightly; strong opinions are freely expressed. While some judgements may perhaps have been short on discussion and analysis, a principal assumption in any such debate invariably seems to be that the Internet is awash with easily viewed pornography. Such a state of affairs, once assumed, is then automatically viewed as a serious danger. Some sort of official action – in a wide variety of guises – must and should follow. However unworkable technically Internet censorship might be, this negative perception leads inevitably to the conclusion that the Internet must be censored and controlled. Our children – and ourselves? – must be protected from a growing tide of electronic filth.

While supporters of this perception are apparently legion, the actual incidence and nature of Internet pornography has largely been assumed, and the arguments against censorship conceded by default. However, while it would surely be accepted by most users of the Internet that sexual material is available, just how easily might such material be accessed, and how ‘pornographic’ might it actually be? Much of the most vocal criticism has certainly come from those with a political or religious agenda – a more neutral academic examination is perhaps appropriate.

A central question is whether the situation on the Internet today is really one of widespread and corrupting squalor, or is there, perhaps, an unfounded moral panic in public and political reactions to what is actually an essentially unproven risk? Is it really true that established decencies are under threat, or is this view perhaps inaccurate, or overstated?

This paper examines the general availability of sexual material on the Internet, and looks at possible responses to the management of such material. First discussing the background to provision of ‘inappropriate’ data, it moves to examine the technical basis for such provision. It assesses the availability of textual material from long-standing Usenet news groups, as well as the much more recent graphics, sounds and images accessible through the WorldWideWeb (WWW).

After analysis and discussion, it concludes that, while definitions of pornography may vary, widespread availability of such material is a reality on the Internet. Much text and graphic data which would be generally judged to be pornographic is indeed widely available. Whilst stressing that total elimination is not technically viable, the paper concludes by assessing methods by which access to electronic data considered ‘unacceptable’ might be restricted.