The web’s porn problem

Huh? Problem? What problem?

Ah, precisely.

A week or so ago, the U.S. Senate held some hearings on pornography, including the internet’s vast and various store of the stuff. Orrin Hatch, the Utah Republican, called porn a “problem of harm, not an issue of taste.” Nobody, though, paid much attention to the proceedings. Popular blogger Jeff Jarvis, in a post titled A Nation of Hairy Palms, dismissed it all as “silly crap” from “conservative prudes.”

Jarvis’s reaction is typical of the blogosphere’s, and, for that matter, the whole country’s, laissez faire attitude toward online porn: Yeah, there’s a whole lot of it out there, but it’s basically harmless, even kind of amusing. Anyone who has the temerity to criticize it, or even call attention to it, is just a prude or a loser who deserves to be ridiculed and ignored.

Another common view of digital porn is that it’s useful – as a case study for internet businesses. Paul Kedrosky, in a recent post, rehearses this theme: “I think that a valuable startup exercise would be to do a wholesale survey of all emerging technology in the promotion, selling, and distribution of online porn …” I’ve probably said or written similar things in the past, as have many others.

But maybe the most common reaction of all is simply denial. When Icann recently proposed setting up an online red-light district, under the .xxx domain, many politicians around the world, led by President Bush, attacked the idea, and Icann shelved the plan. Establishing a porn domain would have acknowledged the fact that the web is crammed with naughty pictures and videos. Without .xxx, we can pretend it doesn’t exist – or at least distance ourselves from it.

I don’t think I’m a prude (and I like to pretend I’m not a loser), but I’d like to suggest that internet pornography is bad. Very bad, in fact. I’m not talking here about your run-of-the-mill dirty pictures and movies – the stuff you’d find in Playboy or Penthouse or your local video store. I’m talking about the really gruesome stuff. If you have a blog, you’re familiar with trackback spam – links that spammers add to your site in order to promote their own sites. My daily chore of deleting trackback spam has, unfortunately, opened for me a window onto the internet pornography industry. Here, for your edification, is a small selection of the headlines I routinely have to delete from my site:

Sex with animals

Rape fantasies

Father-son incest


Brutal [fill in the blank]

These are not the worst of them. The long tail of online pornography is a very long tail indeed, meticulously documenting the full scope and intricacy of human depravity, from the simulated rape and torture of women through bestiality and on to child pornography and other criminal diversions. And guess what? Photographs and video clips of all of it are readily available, not only to adults but to children as well. There are no drawn curtains, no blacked-out windows, on the internet. Think you need a credit card to get this stuff? Think again. Think that filters are reliable, or that kids can’t get around them? Dream on. (And even if you carefully monitor what your kids do on your family’s computers, do you really think all your kids’ friends’ parents are as diligent? Yeah, right.)

[A few hours after posting this entry, I decided to delete a paragraph that originally appeared here. The paragraph provided an example showing how easy it is for anyone to access the type of stuff I’ve been describing (and also illustrated how search engines, by cataloguing the material, facilitate its discovery). I came to fear that the example might have the counterproductive effect of promoting what I’m trying to criticize.]

This isn’t a call to arms. I don’t have the backbone to be a crusader. I just find it curious how easily we’ve come to accept what just a few years ago would have been unimaginable – both the content and its accessibility. Then again, maybe it’s not so curious. In his 1993 article Defining Deviancy Down, published in the American Scholar, Daniel Patrick Moynihan pointed out that:

there are circumstances in which society will choose not to notice behavior that would be otherwise controlled, or disapproved, or even punished. It appears to me that this is in fact what we in the United States have been doing of late. I proffer the thesis that, over the past generation … the amount of deviant behavior in American society has increased beyond the levels the community can “afford to recognize” and that, accordingly, we have been re-defining deviancy so as to exempt much conduct previously stigmatized, and also quietly raising the “normal” level in categories where behavior is now abnormal by any earlier standard.

Moynihan was writing specifically about criminal behavior, but the analysis holds for pornography as well. As a society, we can’t afford to recognize what we all know exists – what in fact lies just a click or two away from whatever we, or our children, happen to be looking at on the web at any given moment. And we can’t afford to consider that when Orrin Hatch calls it “a problem of harm, not an issue of taste,” he may be right. It’s so much simpler to pretend that what he’s saying is “silly crap.”

16 thoughts on “The web’s porn problem

  1. Open Resource

    A matter of harm, not a matter of taste (Nick Carr on porn)

    So, I’m a silly prude. I don’t find porn ennobling (as unthinking feminists apparently do), titillating, or otherwise worthwhile. I think it is harmful, and not just to children. It has no redeeming value. It has no justification. All of…

  2. Gabriel Mihalache

    My answer is, it doesn’t concern you. Who are you to come between 2 independent individuals, engaging in free, consensual trade?

    The burden of policing is on the parents. By your argument, the fact that fake ids are often passed off as real ids means that all public bars should be closed. Also, if an entire range of consensual behavior is evil (by your canons, of course) then prohibition of such behavior is warranted. Didn’t you try that one before?

    Regarding “deviant behavior,” the behavior or someone more than willing to instigate the State against consenting adults is what’s deviant here. Does Mr. Carr finds this or that “deviant”? Well, by all means! Let’s send in the police and jail those deviant bastards… Wouldn’t you like that?

    If you don’t have the “backbone to be a crusader” then it doesn’t follow that you can instigate the State to do your inquisition for you.

    The fact that some people choose to have kinds, and choose not to educate or monitor them places no positive debt on other individuals.

    Why don’t you ask yourself what can we do to protect our children from self-appointed “crusaders”? Communists thought of themselves as crusades; so did the Nazis. The KKK has knights as far as I know… can your crusade against sexual minorities and fetishists be far behind?

    If there’s one thing on the net that worries me is your kind of talk, inciting against prejudice, crimes and state-sponsored crimes. Even so, I don’t plan to limit your free speech and free trade.

  3. bpr


    Can we please talk about Google taking over the world again?

    Seriously, you raise a very important issue that no one has been willing to address because the Net is still cloaked in the luminous raiment of Free Expression. Blah blah blah. There is horror out there.

    I think it will take a generational change in Congress before reasonable regulation of Net content happens.

  4. Jeff Jarvis

    Oh, come on, don’t try to throw it all in one bucket under your favorite “amoral” label. The Senate’s show hearings were about trying to get rid of breasts. You’re doing the same thing they are: that a breast here leads to bestiality there and that’s your excuse for censoring the breast. God made breasts. Breasts are good. Nothing amoral about a breast. To hold hearings arguing that breasts are bad is, indeed, silly crap.

  5. sirshanon

    I work in porn and I have 2 things to say about your post.

    When you say “I’d like to suggest that internet pornography is bad,” it is an over-simplification that sounds exactly like “downloading music is bad.” You clarify your remarks later, but that “internet pornography is bad” line is the one that lends itself to soundbites and to those who would try to put an end to all porn (and other things they don’t agree with). I think what you actually mean could be summed up better. I can not sum up your feelings accurately and so I won’t try but here are mine, in my 2nd point:

    As someone who likes pornography and works in the industry, I can assure you that we want good, strong policing of the internet more than the average joe. We don’t want “porn is bad, make it illegal” laws, of course, but we do not, under any circumstances, want illegal pornography (of ANY kind) associated with us in any way. We do not want minors to have access to our services. We run businesses and plan on doing so for a while. That isn’t going to happen by doing bad things. The sites spamming you (and me) are not real businesses. The sites stealing movies and images and offering them free-for-all are not businesses. Models don’t get paid when people view stolen images for free.

    We can make rules that are strict and that can be enforced, but I am beginning to think that those who make the laws are secretly against them. I have noticed time and time again (for decades) that lawmakers extend sensible laws to the point where they infringe on all American citizens’ rights by over-reaching. Those laws are then overturned, as they should be, but then we’re all back in the same spot as before the law was passed and we still have the same problem. So then a law is proposed that might help and again it is extended too far, passed, and overturned.

    It has to make me think that those who extend the laws to the point of unconstitutionality are simply posturing in order to say they passed tough laws while knowing the law will have no effect in the long run because they ensured that before allowing it to pass.

    The .xxx TLD is a good example. I am against this, as I am against other content-specific TLDs (like .mobi), but I do understand the reasoning behind it. As you noted, it is now frozen, but not because of the reasons I would state (like having to decide if’s owner or’s owner gets to have The TLD is now on hold by people who claim to be against porn. If they were really against porn, or for the better policing of porn, would they really ask for that TLD to be stopped? I don’t think they would. I think they are against their wives, husbands, and bosses being able to find out that they were visiting porn sites.

    The above opinions are my own and in no way reflect my employers’, coworkers’, friends’, relatives’, etc…

  6. vinnie mrichandani

    agree, shameful.. But so are sites which show hostage beheadings, provide suicide assitance and other evil stuff. Just as in the physical world we instictively know neighborhoods we should avoid, the web to me is no different.

    We need John Clarks (the Clancy character) doing what he did in “Without Remorse”…but the reality is we cannot clean everything …

  7. Shouvik Basu

    This debate has got two areas

    (1) Is porn on Web bad.

    (2) The freedom of expression on the web.

    (1) Porn on the web ..

    I will start with the phrase “independent individuals, engaging in free, consensual trade” by Gabriel. There is no harm in that. In fact individuals have been engaging in free, consensual sex trade before the internet era also. Prostitution, for example. But what about a brothel in front of a school. We can make the students sign an agreement “I will not stare at the brothel till I am over 18”. Like the posts we have in porn site “I agree that I am over 18”. What about a bar inside a school, where only adults will drink ? The law does not allow that. Why ? The should be some some restriction to freedom. Who decides ? Society decides and government enfocres (if the government decides and enforces then you get something like Nazi’s). Even limiting access of Minors to bars and porn is a restriction of freedom. And perhaps all will agree that it is necessary. What if minors start asserting their freedom ? Will that be good ?

    I believe this post does not say anything about “independent individuals engaging in free consensual trade”. It does not say anything against porn or prostitution. It speaks against trading methods which though created for “independent individuals” also allows easy access to “dependent individuals”, creates spams, and other mischiefs. The bars are there because it is not yet very easy to fake ID, at least you can see the appearence of the person and make out. If there is any shop which does not take enough measures to check ID that bar should be closed. If there is a town where the is a fake ID creating racket. Then it makes sense to go for a more restrictive ID like passport. If not possible, bars should be closed, yes.

    (2) Freedom of expression in Web ….

    I feel the community is behaving like the Hebrews after exodus from Egypt. They have complete freedom, and creating a mess out of it. It is time for the “COMMANDMENTS OF THE WEB”. Jungle is the place of complete freedom. Society is the place of restricted freedom. First one is insecure unsafe, like the internet of today.

  8. Seth Finkelstein

    I’ve admired some of your other posting, but this one is very poorly reasoned. It makes some elementary errors that are characteristic of pundits who have not studied the issue.

    1) “Bloody head” argument, aka “Won’t Somebody Think Of The Children?”

    To parody for effect: Here’s a BLOODY HEAD! See this BLOODY HEAD! It’s icky. It’s disgusting. THINK OF THE CHILDREN!!!

    This is merely a raw appeal to emotion.

    2) For every problem, there’s a simple solution which is wrong. In this case, that’s the xxx domain. Pundits *love* the xxx domain, because they can write about red-light districts, and walling-off, and all the other cliches which fill column-space. But the simple fact is that the xxx domain does nothing significant. It’s a blacklist. There’s been blacklists for decades. Rather than

    “Without .xxx, we can pretend it doesn’t exist – or at least distance ourselves from it.”, it’s more like with xxx, we can pretend to Do Something for the sake of pontificating.

    I could go on. But years of experience on this topic has had its effect.

    Disclaimer: I’ve done a huge amount of free-speech activism, to somewhat wearying effect these days. Nobody has ever paid me for it.

  9. Gianluca

    Nicholas, as a father I totally agree with you.

    I think that a post so clearly true and in the meanwhile so quite and measured had deserved a discussion of a higher level than what I see in these flat comments :-(

  10. Rusty Hodge

    The trackback/comment spam you mention is also similar to the common porn email spam going around out there. (You probably never see it because it’s caught by your email spam filters.) However, I think this represents a tiny fraction of the porn that’s out there. Most “legit” porn site operators don’t need to spam blogs and mail, they can find plenty of customers without resorting to such tactics.

  11. Modern Orthodox Woman

    An Internet that is Safe for Kids

    Parents have long been concerned about ways to make Internet access safe for their kids. Even if you can put a stop to annoying and offensive pop-ups and spam, one typo in an innocent web address can open up a

  12. Anonymous

    Web porn is accessible to anyone at any age. How can a computer identify anyone’s age when all it records is what the user types. Everyone has their own opinions and views, but mine stand completley against internet porn. Responsible adults understand human nature and natural sexual acts, but in the eyes of a child, or young adult, viewing sex as violence can be devestating and can create long lasting harm. The child could mature to be violent towards women, sexually or physically. Now, I’m not a doctor or and expert, but statistics do support.

  13. Butterfly Marketing

    It has to make me think that those who extend the laws to the point of unconstitutionality are simply posturing in order to say they passed tough laws while knowing the law will have no effect in the long run because they ensured that before allowing it to pass.

    Butterfly Marketing

  14. Bruno Vincent

    Porn censorship can sometimes be really ridiculous…take it here for example in Thailand. The government tries to “block” nudity while simultaneously prostitution is rampant!

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