Porn and the Future

Many reporters avidly follow the pornography industry for good reasons.

With motivated buyers and an ample supply of sellers, the porn market is usually a leader in developing technology and business models. Sleaze merchants pioneered the profitable use of VCRs, CD-ROMs, and the Web. They’ve sold content at a profit, created their own streaming technologies, and are often the “secret sauce” behind portal balance sheets.

If you’re still not convinced this is a valid exercise, consider this. The porn industry began suffering a “shakeout” back in 1999. The industry also hit the wall on the issue of credit card charge-backs two years before other merchants. Right now the industry is working on business models for streaming data to PDAs like the Palm Pilot.

So today’s porn trends could represent a look into your future.

What’s the trend for 2001? The headlines indicate this will be “the year of living litigiously.” The industry is expecting a challenge to its existence from the new Ashcroft Justice Department. America Online has also taken a step, nominally against a porn site, that could have a major impact on every aspect of e-commerce, charging that a business can be held legally responsible for spam sent by its affiliates.

Don’t sell Ashcroft’s effort short, by the way. While on the surface it may sound silly to destroy a multibillion-dollar industry during a recession, politics isn’t logical, and trends in the law may actually favor a porn ban. Obscenity by itself couldn’t win absolute First Amendment protection even from the Warren Court. A case to be argued this fall on simulated child porn could give the Rehnquist Court a chance to issue a broader ruling. Even absent new law, the “community standards” test of the 1960s was used in the mid-1990s to throw operators of a California bulletin board into a Tennessee jail.

A crackdown could also give us the answer to that age-old question of whether any content can be stopped on the Internet and, thus, whether any laws can be effectively enforced on the World Wide Web. An anticensorship group called Peacefire is currently working on a system to bypass software filters while new systems for anonymous surfing are also being developed.

If you don’t think you have a horse in this arms race, read this SafeWeb press release.

Of course if obscene images are against the law, they can be forced off U.S. Web sites, but there’s always file sharing. One porn operator is already working on technology for making file-sharing services work with paid content, and Napster should pay close attention to it. The market is certainly there. History tells us that what works for porn today will work for Disney two years from now.

If this walk on the seamy side proves anything (besides the fact that you can write a link-filled but PG-rated story on the subject), it is that technology marches on and progress doesn’t stop. Even if you hate porn with a passion, that should be good news.

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