With the invention and extensive dispersion of the Internet since the 1990s, pornography distributed via the World Wide Web has become a widespread social phenomenon. Some of its popularity stems from the fact that the Internet, like VHS tapes and DVDs, allows people to view pornography in the privacy of their homes. The problem often connected to the anonymity and easier availability of online pornography is that people (for example, children) may retrieve and view virtually any material in cyberspace—even if their access might otherwise be socially or legally restricted. Also, the Internet expanded the distribution of illegal pornographic material, like child pornography or material with sexually violent content.
The Internet, a complex international network of interconnected computers with an ever-growing population of users, offers an almost infinite selection of sexually explicit material in the form of photos, text and audio files, video clips, as well as streaming media, like live Webcam access offering interactive sexual encounters. Pornographic content is mostly distributed via free and commercial Web sites as well as peer-to-peer file sharing or Usenet newsgroups. The latter, a form of discussion groups prevalent mainly in the early days of online pornography, exists in the form of free services of uploaded pictures and short videos. A large number of pornographic Web sites are in fact free and function to attract users to viewing commercial Web sites by offering a sampling of their more explicit content in the form of thumbnail images or galleries.
Along with the rise of the Internet is growing general concern over the sheer volume of pornographic material available online as well as its legal status concerning both distribution and content—particularly the number of Internet users under the age of 18. (The average age of first Internet exposure to pornography is now 11.) The anxiety over minors’ exposure to obscene material results from the easy availability of sexually explicit Web sites and the incredible growth of the Internet pornography industry in general. More than 4.2 million pornographic Web sites now exist, about 12 percent of all total Web sites online. Their popularity is undeniable: U.S. pornography revenue (more than $6 billion) exceeds the revenues of ABC, CBS, and NBC combined, and pornography revenue is also larger than all combined revenues of all professional baseball, basketball, and football franchises.
Legal regulation of the distribution and accessibility of online pornographic material is difficult. The Internet is a truly international phenomenon, and presently no international laws regulate the circulation, purchase, or possession of Internet porn. Each country has its own individual legal frameworks, but foreign Web sites are unaffected by national regulatory or law enforcement efforts that limit the distribution of online material.
Nonetheless, numerous attempts continue to prohibit the distribution of certain types of pornography (e.g., featuring violence, bestiality, or child pornography), to prevent minors from accessing pornographic content, and to ensure that actors in pornographic media are of legal age. In the United States, several legal efforts to regulate primarily commercial sources of pornographic content often met with heated debates revolving around the issues of censorship and the First Amendment. The Communication Decency Act (CDA) of 1996, for example, covered a wide variety of activities, including the distribution of pornography on the Internet. Challenged in federal court by civil rights groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the portion of the CDA relating to indecent speech was found unconstitutional due to its infringement on the speech rights of adults on the Internet. A second attempt, the Child Online Protection Act (COPA) of 1998, which demanded all commercial Web publishers offering “material harmful to minors” to restrict their sites from access by minors, was struck down by the Supreme Court in 2004 as unconstitutional. A year earlier, however, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of a 2000 law, the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA), challenged as unconstitutional by the ACLU and the American Library Association (ALA). CIPA mandates that schools and libraries receiving federal funds for Internet connections must block or filter access to visual depictions that show obscenity, child pornography, or other material “harmful to minors.”
Technology-based tools, such as software filters that limit access to certain Web sites, constitute another attempt to control the distribution of sexually explicit material online. Many Web sites provide a warning of their pornographic content upon entry, requiring users to affirm that they are at least 18 and wishing to view sexually explicit material. Commercial Web sites often restrict access by using an online Adult Verification System, which seeks to differentiate between adults and minors by requesting a valid credit card number to buy a “membership” to the site.
- Alexander, Mark C. 2002. “The First Amendment and Problems of Political Viability: The Case of Internet Pornography.” Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy 25(3): 977-1030.
- Ditmore, Melissa Hope, ed. 2006. Encyclopedia of Prostitution and Sex Work. Westport, CT: Greenwood.
- Internet Pornography Statistics. http://www.toptenreviews.com/software/security/best-internet-filter-software/internet-pornography-statistics.html
- Thornburgh, Dick and Herbert Lin. 2004. “Youth, Pornography and the Internet.” Issues in Science and Technology 20(2):43-18.