Tuesday, May 13, 2003

Shravanti Reddy

Sex industry money allows Internet to flourish

As anybody who has been the unwitting target of e-mails advertising Web sites containing pornographic images or sexual services knows, the sex industry has a significant presence on the Internet. However, few understand just how reliant the growth of the Internet has been on an industry that promotes the sexual exploitation and abuse of women and children. Internet use has increased significantly in the last ten years creating an information and communications revolution, the impact of which has yet to be fully understood. It provides affordable and easy communication between people around the world, fast access to information, and new opportunities for commerce.

"A large degree of anonymity and privacy is afforded to users of the online sex industry, allowing them to operate virtually undetected by law enforcement officials."

However, this is combined with relatively little enforcement of the few international and national regulation policies that currently exist to control information available on the Internet. The result is that a large degree of anonymity and privacy is afforded to those who are users of the online sex industry, allowing them to operate virtually undetected by law enforcement officials even when they are breaking existing laws. With less fear of prosecution or social stigma, the Internet sex industry has boomed thereby helping the mainstream Internet industry to achieve growth and commercial success by riding on its coattails.

"The high tech industries do not like to talk about how they are being supported by the pornography and prostitution industries," wrote Donna M. Hughes in an article on the relationship between the sex and the Internet industries.

Hughes is a professor of Women's Studies at the University of Rhode Island where she holds the Eleanor M. and Oscar Carlson Endowed Chair. She has been doing research and advocacy on trafficking issues for approximately 14 years and has also written extensively on issues concerning women, science and technology.

The sex industry has clearly been a major player in the growth of the Internet. In 1995, one in ten businesses on the Web sold pornography and the sex industry was among the top five buyers of state-of-the-art computer equipment in 1999. Hughes also pointed out in her article that all of the largest Internet Service Providers (ISPs) were dependent on money from the sex industry to continue functioning. In particular, "pornographic advertising banners are the cash cow, or certain moneymakers, for the Web search engines and indexes."

Those who have tried to exclude pornographic Web sites from their service quickly found that it was not economically viable. In 1997, CNET launched Snap, a search engine that refused to index any pornographic Web sites. A mere nine months after its launch, Snap announced that they had begun to include such Web sites and would continue to do so since 40 percent of their users were looking for pornographic content.

"I think that the economic recession has only increased the Internet industry's dependency on the sex industry," stated Hughes in an interview with the Digital Freedom Network. "There were a lot of articles on the dot com bust and how the sex industry was the only one that was still thriving on the net." According to Hughes, many mainstream workers were forced to take jobs with the online sex industry because that was all that was available.

"While I am certainly a proponent of the use of the Internet and would like to see it expand throughout the world and hope that everybody can make use of it and benefit from it," professed Hughes, "there need to be ways to prevent its use to exploit women and children."

Cyber-images are connected to real world problems

Those seeking to view pornographic images or buy sex have been making the most of new developments in information and communications technologies on the Internet, linking the commercial success of Internet technology to that of the sex industry. The Internet "enables people to easily buy, sell and exchange millions of images and videos of sexual exploitation of women and children," wrote Hughes in an article for the Hastings Women's Law Journal.

While the majority of customers are from the Western and developed countries, the women and children used by the industry are often from less developed countries where poverty and weak law enforcement leaves them vulnerable for use in prostitution and pornography. They are also often trafficked for such purposes.

An online document called the World Sex Guide acts as the equivalent of a Lonely Planet for sex tourists.

Web sites are one of the most common ways to access and promote pornography, the trafficking of women and children, and prostitution. While some are free, many charge subscription fees and are very lucrative. In 2000, the online adult entertainment industry made US$1.7 billion.

Many of the Web sites are also instrumental in assisting those interested in sex tourism. For instance, brothels have openly created Web sites that advertise women and children available to be used in pornography and prostitution. An online document called the World Sex Guide acts as the equivalent of a Lonely Planet for sex tourists. The guide provides practical information regarding what countries are the best places to visit for sex tourism and user reviews on brothels and individual women and children.

In addition to Web sites, there are many other ways in which the customers of the sex industry utilize the Internet to exchange images and information. These include usenet newsgroups, file sharing, e-mail, text and voice chatting capabilities, bulletin boards, peer-to-peer networks and Web casting of real-time videos.

The Internet has also given old movies and photos a new life as they can now be scanned and uploaded for wider distribution than was previously possible. New technologies such as digital photos and movies that can be easily uploaded and allow new pornographic images to be created by bypassing traditional developing and distribution methods that are that are more susceptible to detection by law enforcement officials.

The overall ease with which such material can be accessed on the Internet has directly increased the demand. In 1997, there were 22,000 pornographic Web sites compared to 280,000 by 2000.

As the number of Web sites and material available increases, so does the competition among the various sites. The result is that more and more graphic and violent images are used to attract customers, many involving scenarios of the violent rape and torture of women and children.

The proliferation of such disturbing images which few people had access to prior to the advent of the Internet has made them more mainstream and "acceptable" to users. This trend will ultimately translate into increased violence against women and children in order to meet the new demand for such images.

Furthermore, according to research conducted by the Combating Paedophile Information Networks in Europe Project (COPINE Project), "people who use the Internet to download pornography are progressive in their offending behavior that is directly related to their level of use of the Internet."

In addition, collecting pornographic images is "directly connected to acquiring new technological skills," according to a report by Hughes. "The offender becomes increasingly 'empowered' by the combination of a physical collection, sexual satisfaction, computer skills, and a supportive online community."

Getting rid of the cyber XXXs

Curbing the growth or even attempting to eradicate the pornographic images available on the Internet, which has no national borders, is a difficult task that will require international comity. "I think that people should take advantage of every forum," stressed Hughes. "I also think that it is unlikely that any one forum will work."

Regulations concerning the use of the Internet are still in their infancy and difficult to enforce. Prosecution attempts have thus far been inadequate to say the least. To be successful, initiatives must also address the underlying real world social and economic issues that create the demand for such images and the sex industry in general.

According to an article written by Hughes, "the policy decisions that hinder actions to combat sexual exploitation on the Internet is that Western countries that benefit commercially from the Internet industry — the same ones that benefit from corporate globalization — have made the economic growth and development of the Internet a priority. Their laws, policies, and proposed international agreements do nothing to impede e-commerce and its partnership with the sex industry." Alternatives must be found for the commercial viability of the Internet in order to end this reliance on the sex industry.

Although many self-regulation mechanisms spearheaded by the Internet industry itself exist to combat child pornography on the Internet, such as the Cyber Tipline, they have failed to reduce or eradicate the existence of such material. In 2000, 77 percent of all child pornography cases were related to the Internet.

"Self-regulation is like having the fox guard the hen house," emphasized Hughes. "and I actually see some of these efforts being done to preserve the sex industry." Hughes believed that one of their main motivations of such initiatives has been to get child pornography off the Internet so that that they can continue undisturbed with the making and distributing of pornography involving adults. "They can say that they have done something and now they should be left alone," elucidated Hughes. "It is to help them make the general public happy."

Most initiatives have chosen to focus solely on child pornography while neglecting the widespread use of women and young adults for the same purposes.

Unfortunately, most initiatives, whether internal or external, have chosen to focus solely on the pornography and abuse of children, while neglecting the widespread use of women and young adults for the same purposes. "There has certainly been a lot of effort to get child pornography off the Internet, but the same cannot be said of obscenity," underlined Hughes.

While the US remains the largest producer of pornographic images, they have had "a very poor record on obscenity over the last ten years," noted Hughes. "There are many Web sites with images that violate the law but there has been no adequate prosecution." In fact, a recent report issued by the Council of Europe noted that "Internet businesses refuse to be accountable in other countries, including the UK, even for endangerment of children because they are based in the US and cite the US First Constitution's First Amendment as protection."

The removal of such images can sometimes be as simple as enacting and enforcing the appropriate legislation. For example, a 1999 Swedish law criminalized the buyers of prostitution and created an inhospitable environment for the sex industry. This led to a significant decrease in the number of Web sites and advertisements for brothels and sexual services, as well as street prostitution.

The Council of Europe report also acknowledged an expanded definition of trafficking to include virtual images was another significant step. "With such acknowledgment, images such as the rape of a woman in Russia, where there is little law enforcement, that is transferred to the US via live Webcast can be prosecuted," illustrated Hughes.

Finally, the case involving a New York-based ISP in the US that was charged with criminal facilitation for allowing access to child pornography through a news group in 2001 also marked a significant precedent by holding ISPs responsible and culpable for what is available through their service. "When an ISP becomes aware of illegal child pornography available in its system, the ISP cannot put its head in the sand," stated the New York State Attorney General.

While such a case provides the hope for further prosecution, there is still a long way to go. It remains unclear if the legacy of this technological and information revolution will continue to involve the exploitation of innocent women and children.

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Created: January 8, 2004
Last modified: January 14, 2004
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