Finding a Balance on Adult Content
By Carlo Longino, Thu Jan 29 21:00:00 GMT 2004

Several UK carriers and content providers have gathered in London this week to try and find a solution to their porn problem: how do they make adult content easily available to those who are willing to pay for it, but keep the material out of the hands of kids?

UK carriers have already agreed on a code of conduct that says buyers must be 18 to buy a phone with unrestricted Internet access, with an "independent commission" determining what content kids shouldn't be able to access.

Silly me for thinking parents should be able to decide what's appropriate for their children. Silly them for thinking it will take a group of enterprising teenagers more than a few days to find a way around the blocks, like they've done with everything else that's been thrown at them. But I digress.

The networks' fear is that if they don't come up with an effective solution quickly, the government will step in to regulate mobile adult content, which really isn't just porn, but also includes other content like violent games, gambling, and unmoderated chatrooms. But this business is looking too lucrative for the carriers to let any control slip out of their hands and into restrictive government rules.

Fair enough, but let's be realistic about things. It's true that while parents can exert control over a wired Net connection by putting a PC in a shared space in their house, or limiting access, that's not so easy with a Net-enabled phone. But adding blocks and filters to phones does little more than provide a challenge for teenage hacker wanna-bes. And how do you keep pace with the changing online landscape, where sites appear and disappear constantly? Say something like is on the banned list. What about somebody's personal site where they've scanned in some porn and put it up on the Web, how do you keep track of those? Special boob-sensing algorithms?

What's most likely to happen is that users of these locked-out phones will only be able to access "approved" sites, rather than kept off "unapproved" sites. Does this sound familiar? It should, as it's the same walled garden approach that was one of the nails in WAP's coffin.

A board member of the Mobile Entertainment Forum, one of the trade groups behind the "Delivering Mobile Adult Content Responsibly" conference. says in the BBC article that the companies are trying to make adult content not easy to find accidentally. I thought people only said "Oops, I found this porn -- on accident!" as a lame excuse. With the weak navigation and user interfaces of many mobile content offerings and browsers, the chances of somebody finding some naked pictures "accidentally" on their mobile is ridiculously low.

While the idea of protecting children is noble, they also need to be careful to not stifle the still-young mobile content business. After all, "adult content" like porn and gambling has been a solid financial foundation for many a media technology, like cable and satellite TV and yes, the Internet.

The BBC article, of course, ends with the obligatory doomsday pedophilia warning that's become standard in the British press in these pieces. The head of the "Cyberspace Research Unit" at the University of Central Lancashire (who is said to be an expert on pedophiles' use of technology) says there's already software that "would allow someone to grab information about a child via their phone and build up useful information about when they are vulnerable."

More information than luddite pedophile techniques like stalking? And anyway, wouldn't an easy way to identify a child over the mobile Net be to identify phones with the adult content blocks?