How much porn is on the internet? The anonymity and variety provided by the World Wide Web turned pornography into one of the internet's first big money makers. By 2008, in the FT's estimate, the global porn industry was worth some $12bn a year. Given the vast growth of internet activity, porn now makes up a smaller proportion of the whole than in the early days, but there's still no shortage of supply or demand. About 42,000 (4%) of the million most popular websites in the world are pornographic; about 13% of internet searches are for erotic material. And access to such material, whether you seek it out or not has never been easier. Nine out of ten British children now have access to the net and can stumble across wildly inappropriate things just by putting and innocent word into Google. According to Psychologies magazine, the average child comes across internet porn at the age of 11; put to 80% of teenagers are thought to regularly look at porn on line.
What can be done about it? MPs think the six companies that connect more than 90% of British households to the internet (BT, Virgin Media, Talk Talk, Sky, Everything Everywhere and 02) could do far more to restrict the prn that flows into our homes and onto our laptops. Last month, a cross-party committee of MPs , led by the Conservative Clair Perry, recommended that internet service providers (ISPs) put an automatic block on porn content, eliminating the risk of children stumbling on it. There's no technical difficulty with this "opt-in" system, say its advocates: the Uk's mobile -phone operators banned adult content in 2004, and ISPs have been filtering out child pornography since 2007.
The Labour Party says it would back an "opt-in" policy and the Daily Mail - which accuses ISPs of refusing to clamp down on porn because they make money from customers downloading it - has launched a "Block Online Porn" campaign. The influential internet forum Mumsnet says that 84% of its members are worried about the accessibility of internet porn, and undoubtedly many parents find the idea of an automatic porn filter reasssssuring. However, there are reasons why an "opt-in" system would be irrelevant and indeed unworkable.
What are those reasons? In the first instance, internet companies dispute the size of the problem. Google maintains that only 14% of children have come across sexual images online. and 4% have found them upsetting . In any case, they argue that any large scale internet filtering is likely to be expensive , they argue that any large-scale internet filtering is likely to be expensive and "a blunt instrument", since porn websites will always stay one step ahead of game. More importantly, in an age when teenagers send each other sexually explicit images on webcams and mobile phones, and when most porn sites are amateur, it becomes almost impossible to police. The ISPs say that if you want to prevent young children accidentally coming across shocking material on the internet, you can use the filters they already offer - and there are free products that do the same, such as Family Shield. If, however, the aim is to clear up the internet, then pornography is likely to prove, as it has always done, an impossible target.