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Network: Coming attractions

One UK-based Web site that has enjoyed phenomenal growth since its launch just a year ago is Xnet. It now boasts 1.3 million hits a month and the magazine which accompanies the site is ranked in the top three Internet title turnover ratings at WH Smith. The site editors are modest, indeed virtuous, in what they claim for their content. It is strictly legal, that is legal by UK definitions, soft pornography.

"Many Web sites of an adult nature are extremely responsible when it comes to concern about what they publish," says Bret Pittam, sales and marketing manager for Xnet. "Our pages are preceded by several warnings and all the material is cleared by our legal team." Further, Pittam insists that this policy extends to the links available from the Web site, too. Though the page containing these links was headed with a banner ad, flashing "Girl School, I'll strip for you for just $4.95".

Parental responsibility is Pittam's main defence against the concern that minors might download pornographic material, by accident or design. "The Internet is just like a newsagent. You would not let your children just wander in and take magazines off the top shelf. So parents should take measures to monitor what they are doing on the Internet," he says. Such filters are readily available and work in a number of ways, from holding lists of forbidden URLs to measuring the percentage of "fleshy" colours contained in pictures and judging the image accordingly.

Many sites go further. Age verification systems - usually based upon registration requiring credit card details that can be checked - kill two birds with one stone for an industry that both needs to make money and be seen to be self-regulating. It is ironic that the combination of a medium which offers anonymity and an industry which thrives on anonymity has actually led to some of the most thorough means of identification ever devised.

Xnet's users are typically professional men, aged over 30 from the ABC1 socio-economic groups. "They are the sort who use the Internet not only to look at pornography, but also enjoy sites dealing with cars, sport and beer," says Pittam. "We have links to and from these kind of sites, too." He also adds that contrary to the myth that the offices of the land are full of bored male employees downloading titillation to while away the day - latest research from Novell says that 23 per cent of men knew of someone who uses the Net to access pornography when they are supposed to be working - Xnet hit rates peak outside office hours.

Sex sites on the Internet have also been instrumental in the design of sites more generally, notably when it comes to adverts. The trick is to maximise ad exposure and minimise the amount of time it takes to come down the line. A typical sex site will send text announcing its title first, followed quickly by a "tempter" picture to keep the visitor's interest up. Then will appear the banner ads before the bulk of the Web site even begins.