Last week, a federal appeals court in Philadelphia struck down a law aimed at shielding children from Internet pornography. The court affirmed earlier decisions that even though pornography offends many people, porn on the Web is free speech, protected by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
In many Internet mailboxes, including some easily accessed by children, what used to be a trickle of unsolicited porn advertisements has turned into a torrent. In part, that's because the Internet has become a major market for pornographers. Datamonitor, a New York-based research company, estimates that Internet users spend more than $3 billion a year paying to see porn on increasingly explicit websites.
Looking for still more customers, porn website owners are inundating the Net with what is called "porn spam", often laced with graphic sexual photographs, as a tease to visit paid sex websites. They fire off spam like a random shotgun blast to millions of e-mail addresses at once.
John Dvorak, a California-based columnist for PC computer magazine, estimates he gets 500 e-mails a day, with as many as 100 that he never asked for, touting pornography sites. "A lot of spammers put up the message, 'If you don't want to get this spam, click here, and we'll take you off the mailing list.' What that tends to do is put you on a 'hot list,' because now they know that this is a real address because you're using it," he says. "They know for a fact that you exist. You're going to get 10 times more spam than you've ever had before." Mr. Dvorak says many of porn spam's message lines are cleverly written to disguise their true content. "My favorite one is, 'Sorry I missed your call,' and then you open it, and it's a solicitation for some porn site," he says.
John Dvorak of PC magazine says moderately effective filters are available to block porn spam from one's electronic mailbox. Some of the filters recognize that the return e-mail address is fictitious or impossible to trace and prevent the pornographic message from reaching one's in-box.
Of course defining what constitutes pornography is always tricky. John Dvorak says porn-site owners have successfully eased the term "adult material" into the lexicon, making even hard-core sexual content seem like harmless entertainment for grown-ups. "The other issue that they keep bringing up is 'free speech.' And I've never understood exactly how a picture of some woman with a goat constitutes free speech," he says. "And it's not like I'm a conservative [fanatic] about this, but I really don't like getting this material unsolicited. If I want to collect porn, it's not that hard to do. But I don't want it being pushed at me."
Particularly, Mr. Dvorak says, when pornography websites are getting darker and darker, displaying scenes of torture, bestiality, and child sexual abuse.
Gail Dines, who directs the American studies program at Wheelock College in Boston, has written a chapter about Internet porn in a new feminist anthology called Sisterhood is Forever. She notes that pornographers pioneered much of the Internet's sophisticated technology by introducing such features as video streaming and pop-up ads. She says the effect of pornography, first honed by ever-more-provocative sex magazines, beginning with the soft porn of Playboy magazine in 1953, is that even young boys are accepting the degradation of women as the norm.
Dines: "Boys are seeing themselves as entitled to use females in any way they want. And girls are beginning to see themselves as products to be used by men in order to gratify men sexually. You're socializing girls to become sex objects."
Landphair: "What are you hearing from your students?"
Dines: "Well what I hear, most interestingly, is that many of the boyfriends are asking their girlfriends to re-enact scenes from pornography. The boyfriends have seen it in pornography, and they want to see what it feels like in real life. And many women are scared of being left alone without a male in their life and will give in to do these things, when in fact their instincts are telling them, 'Don't do it.'"
The only real hope at the moment, Ms. Dines says, is that as more and more people are affronted by the waves of porn on their Internet screens, pornography will again be viewed as harmful, rather than as a victimless crime.
John Dvorak at PC magazine says those who receive Internet porn can be among those victims. He notes that companies have fired employees for accepting porn messages at their computer workstations, sometimes innocently. "If you've been getting a lot of porn e-mail spam, especially HTML mail that have downloaded images that you don't even know you've downloaded, they could be sitting in a 'temp' file, they could be sitting in the attachment box," he says. "And I believe that if somebody wanted to just go after any employee that they wanted to get rid of, they could say, 'Oh, look at all the porn on their computer.'"
Even though federal laws aimed at Internet pornography have crashed on the rocks of unfavorable court decisions, several U.S. states have dived into the fray.
The western state of Utah, for instance, offers a lengthy discussion of Internet porn and porn spam on the website of the state attorney general, Mark Shurtleff. Last year, Mr. Shurtleff says, Utah passed a law aimed at prosecuting companies that, without being asked, send Internet pornography into Utah homes, where children can view it. "I've had several civil libertarians and others say, 'Hey, why are you even trying this? This is impossible," he says. "This worldwide Web is just too big, too huge. You cannot control it.' And I think that's what pornographers count on, that kind of attitude that we can do nothing. And I think that attorneys general and local prosecutors, and the federal government, if we work together, we can make a difference."
The State of Utah will soon offer its citizens what it calls a "virtual 911 button," named after the code that people use to call for help by telephone in an emergency. The "virtual 911 button" will enable Utah residents to block further messages from undesirable websites while at the same time alerting the state attorney general. Mark Shurtleff says he hopes this new technology will be an effective weapon against Internet pornographers, but he admits he's up against a slippery adversary that is thumbing its nose and taunting, "Catch me if you can."
Although no one seems to know precisely when the term "spam" was first used to describe massive e-mail solicitations, one explanation is that it traces to the British comedy show "Monty Python." One of its recurring skits involved characters dressed like Viking warriors. They invaded a restaurant, demanded that every dish on the menu contain the processed-meat product "Spam," and then sang about Spam. "Monty Python" fans later began using the terms "spam" and "spamming" for intrusive Internet pitches and pop-up ads.
This is the seventh story in an occasional series on the impact of the Internet on American life