Keeping it clean – porn on the internet

The internet opens up many things to the people who use it. Most of these are useful things – even important and essential to our lives. However, amongst the information and communication opportunities available to us when we sit down in front of a connected computer there are things many consider to be undesirable or, at worst, evil. One of these things is pornography.

In most cases, pornography online consists of pictures of women in varying states of undress, sometimes engaged in lewd acts. Usually these images are only seen as the result of an active search and financial transaction, but they can surprise the unwitting web user, appearing in a banner ad or pop up window generated by an otherwise innocent page. More often, unwanted images are glimpsed and quickly closed after starting a session at an internet café the unsavoury remnant of the prior customer’s surf. Perhaps most sinister are dirty pictures generated by spyware hidden surreptitiously during installation of seemingly unconnected software.

Some people argue online porn is an evil that should be banned. Others, fearing the dangers of censorship, say that it is up to the individual what they look at and if they are offended they should look away, perhaps tut-tutting. Most people will agree is that those who don’t want to see it shouldn’t be subjected to it, and children should be protected from it.

Whatever you feel about porn on the internet, one thing is sure – it is not about to go away soon. Online porn is one of the few businesses to succeed in making profits from the web. Indeed, porn is so lucrative that much of the internet technology we have – and benefit from – today, from online payment systems to streaming video, would not exist without it. When the “dot com” bubble burst, internet technicians who were suddenly unemployed found themselves turning to the porn industry for jobs. This situation is only possible because, worldwide the demand for porn is high – people pay to look at those pictures.

This being the case, what can society do to avoid the problems associated with easier access to pornography? Some call on governments to legislate against it. However, the internet being a medium that knows no borders, any such action would merely see banned providers moving elsewhere. The Tanzanian government has written to ISPs, calling on them to bar access to porno sites, shutting Tanzania off from the trend. Unfortunately, this is extremely difficult to do.

Blocking software does exist, but it tends to also block pages that aredesirable – a bar on pages including the word “sex”, for example, removes access to pages about HIV/AIDS, plant reproduction, or the London suburb of Middlesex. Additionally, almost all blocking software allows some offending sites through. To put it short, there is no effective technological means to block access to porn at the ISP or on your own computer.

The majority of ISPs in the country have not been able to comply with the government request, and one would speculate that if they did, many of their customers would leave for an ISP that had not.

So what can be done about the deluge of nipples and genitalia appearing on screens across the country? What can be done to protect the sensibilities of those who are offended, and how to keep our childrens’ curious eyes away?

In order to prevent people from seeing images they haven’t chosen to see computer owners and internet cafes should ensure their machines are free of pop-up generating spyware. That programme I am always recommending – Ad-Aware –
will do this automatically every time the machine is booted. Internet cafes using TimeWatcher should consider activating the function that closes all windows when a customer’s time runs out – or make sure that no windows are open before a new customer sits down in front of the screen. Deciding upon, and posting notices of an acceptable usage policy is another step that internet café managers can take – set the boundaries for your customers. If you are ok with customers looking at porn, make sure there are machines they can use where other customers can’t see the screens. One café in town has curtained off rooms for “total privacy” – what at first seemed seedy with further consideration is responsible.

Individual users should learn to distinguish seedy junk email that may contain sordid pictures from genuine messages, and delete without opening them.

Parents worried about what their children might see should become more informed about the internet – try it out and see what is really going on out there. You will almost certainly be pleasantly surprised by how useful the internet is. You will also gain a more realistic idea of what the risks are, and are then better equipped to discuss the subject with your children. Visit the internet cafes and web pages your children frequent. Ask the managers about how they deal with porn.

Porn is part of the internet environment. It is not a reason to fear the internet anymore than wild animals are a reason to fear a visit to the countryside – taking reasonable precautions minimises the risks.

Interesting sites

Originally published in Arusha Times 294

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