Online Porn

How Do We Keep It From Our Kids?

In the age of the Internet, it is laughingly easy for kids to view pornography online. A mere 3 percent of the more than 450 million individual porn Web sites ask for proof of age, according to a recent report by the Washington-based Third Way, a progressive research and policy group. Some sites simply ask visitors to certify that they are of legal age by clicking on “enter.” The majority of porn sites don’t bother to carry any warning of adult content at all, and nearly three-quarters display free teasers of pornographic images on their homepages even before kids are asked whether they are of legal age. Not surprisingly, many children accidentally come across a porn site while doing homework or surfing the Web.

As the report also notes, some online purveyors of porn aren’t waiting for kids to stumble through their portals. They’re targeting them. They may use keywords like Santa Claus or Teletubbies in their Web sites so that search engines will send anyone who uses that keyword to their site. Or they may buy domain names that contain a common typo that is close to the names of real sites. According to the report, www. whitehouse.com was, until recently, a pornographic Web site.

The susceptibility of kids to online porn is troubling to most Americans. (This is contrary to some claims that only a handful of religious right and antismut conservatives oppose minors’ easy access to porn on the Web.) In a nationwide survey conducted by the Pew Research Center this year, an overwhelming majority identified the Internet as the top potential threat among popular entertainment sources for children, with nearly three-quarters (73 percent) saying they were “very concerned” about sleazy content reaching kids. An even higher proportion of parents (81 percent) expressed concern. The groups most worried include single parents, low-income parents, and African-American parents.

In the past, such a high level of public concern would have led to swift political action to protect kids. Back in the years when the porn trade was mainly a bricks-and-mortar business located on seedy strips and in red-light districts, the local community had political measures to restrict kids’ access to hardcore material. They relied on zoning laws, curfews, government-issued IDs, and the respectable Main Street business class to control the “adults only” outlets. The small-time owners of peep shows and dirty bookstores lacked a strong economic incentive to target kids anyway: they could make good money from grown men.

This is no longer the case. With the change in technology, the politics of pornography has also changed. Internet purveyors of porn are everywhere and nowhere. The local community has lost its power to regulate the trade. Parents can’t picket the sites. City councils can’t zone Web sites into a red-light district. Concerned citizens can’t boycott. And local law enforcement can’t drop in and check IDs. Moreover, online economics create incentives for increasing traffic to porn sites. Operators can earn fees everytime someone clicks on their Web page or ads. It is in their economic interest not to discourage children from visiting their site since every click counts toward a profitable bottom line.

Also, the porn trade itself has undergone a massive makeover. It has left the seedy back streets for Wall Street and K Street. The old mom-and-pop outlets have given way to Big Porn, a multimillion corporate behemoth with the trappings of power and influence and a respectable identity as a part of the booming “adult entertainment industry.” Its lobbyists and lawyers work the halls of Congress. Its trade group rubs shoulders with other members of the corporate community. It is covered respectfully in the business press. And it has attracted political allies from the libertarian right and left.

With this kind of clout, Big Porn and its allies have been able to evade, sidetrack, or defeat every major legislative effort to protect children from exposure to its sleaze, including the Child Online Protection Act signed by Bill Clinton and passed into law in 1998. The industry’s lawyers and lobbyists have worked especially hard to thwart efforts to require adult Web sites to install highly effective proof-of-age software technologies. Such a requirement, they argue, would impose an undue financial burden on the industry’s ability to pursue its business interests in the free market. As they see it, it is individual parents, not the adult entertainment industry, who bear the burden of protecting kids. And it is parents, not the operators of porn sites, who should be installing filtering software on their own computers.

Senator Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) doesn’t buy it. She recently introduced a bill that calls for strict age-verification requirements and a 25-percent federal “smut tax” on porn sites to pay for the costs of protecting children. If the bill succeeds, it will be a first.

Published in the 2005-10-21 issue: 
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Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, author of The Divorce Culture (Knopf), directs the Center for Thrift and Generosity at the Institute for American Values.

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