pornography part two : Will pornography take over the Internet? Steve Beard looks at efforts to control sex in cyberspace
Is the Internet the future of pornography? At present, child pornography is the main concern, since the new media can function as technological supplements to the contact magazines which paedophiles have used in the past.

The 1988 Criminal Justice Act makes it an offence for somebody to be in possession of an "indecent" photograph of a child and this includes material downloaded and stored on a computer disk. The 1994 Criminal Justice Act makes it an offence for somebody to be in possession of a similar "pseu- do-photograph" which has been digitally invented with special effects software. A spokesman for the Paedophile Unit at the National Criminal Intelligence Service in London says they see no need for further legislation in the UK at this point.

This is not the conclusion which has been reached in the US, however, where anxieties about the availability of child porn on the Internet led in February to the passing of the Communications Decency Act. This effectively bans transmission over the Internet of "any comment, request, suggestion, proposal, image, or other communication that, in context, depicts or describes ... sexual or excretory activities or organs." Not surprisingly, the Act has been widely condemned as an infringement of the constitutional right to free speech and an attempt to turn the Internet into "the on-line equivalent of a children's reading room."

The objectors may have a point. The specific justification for the Act was to prevent any "person under 18 years of age" from accessing "offensive" material. Yet there is already a technological solution to this problem. "Parental control filters" like Net Nanny and SurfWatch allow parents to screen the information which their children have access to by keying a list of offensive code-words - the software equivalent of the infamous "V-Chip" in television.

There seems to be common agreement that the Communications Decency Act is unenforceable. But it may encourage Internet service providers, as well as content providers, like Microsoft, to become self-censoring.

The problem with any attempt to control the Internet is that it is a global system. This is something often poorly understood by many legislators who still tend to operate on a purely national basis. Is somebody in London, for example, who takes out an account with an Amsterdam service provider in order to access material which is illegal in the UK but not in the Netherlands liable to prosecution? UK Internet service providers are also confused about how responsible they are in law for the material which passes through their system."It makes little sense for us to be treated as publishers since we neither commission nor edit what appears," says Brian Williams, business manager of service provider CIX. "We would like to achieve common-carrier status like BT, which is not responsible for the information it carries."

These are not questions likely to trouble the likes of Paul Raymond Publications. PRP established a website in January and made the kind of images available in Mayfair and Men Only freely available on the Internet. The site features warning signs and anybody using it dutifully has to type in "I am over 18" before gaining access to its pages. According to a recent report in .net magazine, 25 per cent of its users are from the UK and it gains an average of two million hits per month. It could mean big business if PRP goes ahead with plans to introduce more interactivity to the site and bill potential clients for its use. Other adult entertainment publishers have also established presences on the Internet and this looks set to become one of the Internet growth industries.

The imagery available on these kind of sites still fits the requirements of UK decency laws. Other material which can be accessed from, for example, Dutch porn sites, occupies a grey area. Anybody wanting to access porn on the Internet is going to be able to find it. Usenet newsgroups with names like fetish.feet and lesbians do exist out there. But much virtual porn is quite soft and of the "readers wives" or Page Three variety.

The UK pressure group Liberty is preparing a report on the civil liberties implications of the Internet, which will be ready in July. Its deputy director Duncan Lustig-Prean has no illusions that he has an easy job on his hands. "It's the old contradiction," he says. "On the one hand we recognise that pornographic items will cause people great offence. But on the other hand, we don't want information to be censored. The Internet magnifies this contradiction in the hugest possible way."