The Love-Hate Affair With Mobile Porn
By Mike Masnick, Mon Oct 25 21:30:00 EEST 2004

Porn is expected to be a big seller, but the mobile operators still can't come to terms with it. They want the cash, but don't want the headaches of dealing with porn. Is there a safe middle ground?

It's a common refrain in the technology world, that porn "leads the way." Whether through a better understanding of the customer, or by many iterations of trial-and-error, it seems like pornographers often figure out ways to make better use of new technologies than traditional content providers. It happened with the VCR and it happened with the Internet. For years, people have been wondering if they would do the same for mobile phones.

There has been some skepticism. VCRs and the Internet all provided a large screen that was useful for displaying pornographic pictures. Telephones, with high toll numbers worked over voice connections, but that doesn't open up many new opportunities for mobile data. The tiny screen and the limited bandwidth still seem to make mobile porn a fairly limited offering. However, it's clear that there's some demand for mobile porn. A new study is suggesting that within a few years, mobile porn will be a $1 billion business.

While I may side with the skeptics on whether or not the market really is that big, one thing that's clearly different in this case is that the mobile operators have much more control -- and that may be their downfall. In the case of the VCR and the Internet, it was an open system, where anyone with the right tools could produce the content and let it go free. Meanwhile, the operators keep insisting that, in the mobile data world, they must go with a walled garden approach in order to nickel and dime everyone. The downside, though, is that as gatekeepers, they now have to worry about what they keep out as well as what they let in.

This is a huge, and daunting, task. This past summer, Vodafone tried to filter out mobile porn and discovered just how difficult it was. The filtering system blocked access to users' Blackberry email accounts and certain game sites, among many other non-porn content. The only way around the blocks was to go to a Vodafone location, prove you were over 18 and ask for access to porn -- something many might not feel comfortable doing just to get access to their email accounts.

At least with the Internet and VCRs the providers had no say in the content. However, in setting themselves up as the gatekeepers, the operators have given themselves this task. If mobile porn is really going to lead the way to the "killer app" of data, it's not going to do so if it's constantly restricted by operators who want the killer app and the cash, but are scared of the public backlash from being associated with the adult entertainment business. Despite the study announced today, it still seems up in the air whether or not there's a real business in selling mobile pornography, but it's unlikely to get very far if the operators have a split personality about it.

There is a simple solution: bring down the walls in the garden, and let anyone produce content, applications and services to run on an operator's service. As for protecting children from pornographic material, children under a certain age could simply be limited to a more acceptable walled garden of pre-approved applications. Make open access the standard, and set up the protective gardens only for those who truly need it. Not every adult wants porn on their mobile phone, but by opening up the platform and letting developers build creative apps, we'll figure out what people want. Limiting them, and worrying about how to protect everyone simply means that the overall creativity is stifled.