Live

Watch CBSN Live

Red-Light District For Web Porn

Americans love porn. Don't bother denying it; the estimated $12 billion in annual revenues speak for themselves. These days, of course, the Internet is where you find some of the hottest action, both financially and "artistically."

According to Family Safe Entertainment (some values-oriented group that sells porn filters for your PC), there are 4.2 million online porn sites, regularly visited by an estimated 40 million American adults -- which helps explain why the revenues from Internet porn now hover between $2.5 and $3 billion a year. But the popularity of the "adult entertainment industry" presents our society with something of a dilemma. Because, as much as Americans love to watch Hot Young XXX Virgin Coeds Service Three Sailors at Once -- and you people know who you are -- we absolutely freak out at the idea of our kids encountering such an unwholesome sight.

This urge to protect our offspring has spawned a virtual industry of anti-porn groups, pushing for everything from the creation of a voluntary ratings system by content providers to the installation of mandatory filters on school computers to the public beheading of all smut peddlers. (This last idea is said to be a favorite of Attorney General John Ashcroft.)

Recently, a Florida businessman named Stuart Lawley has been pushing a new proposal: the creation of a special XXX section of the Internet akin to old fashioned red-light districts. Smut peddlers looking to sit on the dot-XXX site would pay a fee and sign a contract agreeing to abide by certain still-to-be-determined rules. (Such as: no pop-up ads, no kiddie porn, no spam, etc.) By organizing themselves and somewhat rationalizing, if not exactly legitimizing, their business practices, porn peddlers would have a financial incentive to climb aboard the new domain. This online zoning, in turn, would make it easier for parents and activists to keep children away from inappropriate sites. Though hardly perfect, Lawley's idea sounds like a fairly reasonable one -- which means, of course, that it is under attack from both sides of the porn divide.

Many children's advocates are doing what you would expect them to do: complain that the proposal doesn't go far enough. In a "Today" show interview Wednesday, the president of the nonprofit group Enough is Enough, complained that without congressional action, porn peddlers wouldn't bother complying, and that kids would still find a way into the forbidden zone.

I agree that the concept of a congressional mandate to stop online porn has a certain appeal. Talk of voluntary rules or restrictions sounds a bit limp when we're discussing how to keep second-graders off a site hawking Horny Housewives Jell-O Wrestling With ... But the harsh reality is that, any time we start toying with the idea of compelling pornographers to do much of anything, the ACLU gets all agitated and starts squawking about "constitutional this" and "First Amendment that." The porn industry has a lot of money with which to hire a lot of lawyers, and before you know it, you have Larry Flynt wrapping himself in the American flag and screeching about his God-given right to watch girl-on-girl action from the privacy of his home computer. No one wants to see that.

Just as importantly, Internet porn is a global business. Some outfit in Spain claims to be the biggest provider of online adult content -- and the last time I checked, the U.S. Congress wasn't officially in the business of regulating foreign enterprise.

So why would porn peddlers bother to sign on? For the same reason they got into the business to begin with: money. Right now, porn sites are having trouble convincing credit card companies to participate on their sites. And the companies that do participate fleece porn sites with sky-high fees. Supporters of Lawley's proposal argue that porn peddlers that agreed to clean up their financial and marketing acts enough to allow them to sit on the XXX domain would be a more attractive bet both for credit card companies and for consumers anxious about handing out their card numbers online. Moreover, argue supporters, by making the industry somewhat less shady, the XXX address would attract more responsible consumers less likely to skip out on their bills (which is currently a big reason that banks charge porn sites such steep rates).

What about the argument that kids would find a way around whatever filters you put up? Sure, some kids will always find a way to hack into forbidden areas. But segregating porn into an XXX zone could help make it easier to construct filters that would help most parents protect most kids.

As for the pro-porn complaints: In his "Today" show appearance "First Amendment Attorney" Jonathan Katz argued that what starts out as voluntary could quickly turn into a compulsory corralling of adult entertainment into a virtual porn ghetto. That, in turn, would make it too easy for the government to target objectionable sites for prosecution.

Bullshit. This sort of slippery slope argument is specious in most cases. In this particular case, it's absurd. A major selling point of this voluntary, contractual arrangement is that it skirts all the sticky constitutional issues that anything mandated automatically would raise. Moreover, at the first whiff of government infringement, porn producers would immediately flee the XXX zone, slithering back out into the unregulatable ether of the Internet.

Would all porn peddlers sign on to such a plan? Of course not. Are there scores of legal and technical details that would need to be addressed before the first pornographer signed the first contract? Absolutely. But considering the massive, proliferating porn problem parents currently face, where's the harm in trying what seems like a perfectly reasonable experiment? If an XXX zone in cyberspace could spare me even a fraction of the Juicy Teen Sex ads that pop up on my screen every eight minutes, it can't be all bad.

Michelle Cottle is a senior editor at TNR.

By Michelle Cottle
©

View CBS News In