The Seedy Side of Mobile Internet
By Carlo Longino, Mon Feb 10 12:54:00 GMT 2003

How can carriers harness the tremendous earning potential of "seedy entertainement" services while keeping them from becoming a problem?

Pornography and gambling would seem to be the Holy Grail for mobile operators searching for that killer data app. They can be bandwidth-intensive, interactive, and most of all, people are willing to pay for them. They also feature a highly loyal audience that is quick to jump on any new medium for their vice, much like they did with cable and satellite TV, the Internet, and DVD players. Indeed, by some estimates, adult entertainment can make up 80 percent of the early-adopter traffic for new technologies.

Understandably, many carriers are hesitant to become too involved in these types of content – whether it be for legal or moral reasons, or simply to avoid controversy. But porn and gambling simply have too much potential to make too much money for cash-strapped carriers to be dismissed out of hand. There are however, a number of questions – economic, technological, and moral – that must be considered first.

The legal minefield surrounding these industries, especially for multinational carriers is immense. For example, gambling, with few exceptions is illegal in the United States. Many Internet sites that cater to US gamblers get around this by being “based” in offshore havens like Costa Rica. They hide behind the nebulous nature of the Internet to protect themselves and their clients from local gambling laws. But what happens when a user accesses such a service through their carrier’s wireless network? What responsibility or liability does the carrier then assume? And what happens when a user roams from their home country to a place where gambling is illegal? Can they still access these services?

Similar questions apply to pornography. How can carriers ensure that their networks aren’t being used to transmit illegal images, like child pornography? Again, what about roaming? What happens when a user from a permissive country like the Netherlands, where he has subscribed to an adult MMS service, roams to a conservative country in the Middle East where pornography is illegal? And as mobile spam proliferates, how do you keep the type of hard-core images that pop up in Hotmail inboxes uninvited all the time off of kids’ mobiles?

Clearly, this is a tricky area. But the amount of money to be made still makes it attractive for carriers. But how do they proceed? And is it worth it? Will people shell out for these services like they did on the wired Internet?

Perhaps the best route for carriers is to partner with reputable content and service providers, which allows them to keep a cut of all the action while maintaining a strong grip on what’s going across their networks and how, ensuring that everything stays within not only legal boundaries, but the carriers’ comfort zone. Is this the best solution? By providing interested users with an easily accessible and reasonably priced service that is as easy to use and well-designed as less prurient applications, can they undercut the demand for less regulated outside services?

And is this the right way to go at all, or should they stay away from and block any sort of services like these? Is the risk that they’ll be held accountable for the traffic, or that a pedophile will use a feature or service to lure a child or something similarly vile too great a risk to take?

It's Vice Week on TheFeature! Check back daily for reports, analysis and in-depth articles on the future of mobility. And share your views on this topic in the Podium.