Network: Everything you never wanted to know about sex ... but were told anyway

You can hardly pick up a newspaper these days without reading an article about the Internet being awash with pornography and a haven for perverts. Yet there is little in the way of reliable statistics on the extent of the problem, or indeed, if it truly is a problem.

Neil Barrett needed something from the Internet to introduce his daughter to the information age. So he went to Alta Vista, the well-known search engine, and typed in her name, "Jenny". One of the search results caught his eye - Jennicam. A woman called Jenny was broadcasting real-time images of her life over the Net, picked up by cameras in her Washington flat. The next click of the mouse took Barrett to the archive of these pictures of Jenny, categorised according to what she was up to at the time. It was only a small percentage of the shots as a whole, but some of the images were of Jenny enjoying a night in with her boyfriend. Fair enough. This is a portrayal of real life. But he started to feel nervous. It turned out that this page was only another click away from copy-cat sites of other "Jennys" with their "boyfriends". Barrett had stumbled across the dark side of the Web, and within half a dozen links, had entered the world of Internet pornography.

There is undoubtedly a lot of material of an adult nature on the Internet. Many commentators have observed that in much the same way as hard-core films on videocassette were responsible for the rapid introduction of video machines, porn on the Internet has hastened the technology's spread. And any subscribers to Internet service providers (ISPs) who make their list of members available, notably America Online, will be familiar with an e-mail inbox jammed with messages bulk-mailed to them, with subject lines from "XXX girl pics" to "Heard that the Web is hot? Here it is too much to handle."

But research results into precisely how much pornography there is on the Internet, and more importantly of what type, vary wildly. A now famous case of overestimate appeared on the front cover of Time magazine. Based on the work of Marty Rimm from Carnegie Mellon University, it declared that more than 80 per cent of picture files exchanged on Usenet were of a pornographic nature, and that close on 50 per cent of pornography downloaded from commercial Web sites was of a profoundly obscene nature. Although these statistics are still promoted by right-wing groups in the United States, such as the Family Research Council, they have been discredited.

At the opposite end of the spectrum are the estimates of Donna Hoffman, of Vanderbilt University. She noted that sex-related sites make up just 2 to 3 per cent of the Web's 200,000 commercial sites, and concluded: "Sex is a small part of the Net experience in general and a small part of the commercial Web experience."

Much of the confusion is the fault of statistics. So even taking Rimm's results at face value, it has been pointed out that picture files represent only about 3 per cent of all messages on Usenet groups, with Usenet itself representing only 11.5 per cent of the traffic on the Internet. This means that pornographic images comprise merely 0.5 per cent of all Internet traffic. Alternatively, Hoffman's conclusion that sex is a marginal activity on the Web can be readily undermined by a visit to the sites that monitor hit rates. Almost invariably the top 10 sites are pornographic, and it is rare that more than 5 per cent of the top 100 are otherwise, too.

However, the amount of money being made from selling Internet pornography is probably relatively small compared with the sex industry as a whole, because although porn companies have elaborate strategies to lure customers into parting with their cash, or at least their credit card numbers, new technologies have not become a major source of income, as yet. But it seems highly likely they will. Last year, in America alone, up to $1bn was spent on telephone sex. The ease, anonymity and interactivity that explains the commercial success of telephone sex is but a foretaste of what will be possible on the Internet.

It happens that Neil Barrett, the father of Jenny, is a member of the Policing the Internet forum, a sub-committee of the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO). He is the author of a book about crime on the Internet and has served as an expert witness in an Internet porn case. Yet in spite of the disturbing experience looking at the Web with his daughter, he remains reserved in his assessment of the dangers and extremes of Internet pornography.

His basic message is that the most obscene material which attracts the sensationalist media attention, that is paedophile pornography, is remarkably hidden. It takes a high level of Internet expertise to find it. The reason for this is clear. Paedophiles operate in small rings. One person will generally only have contact with two or three others. The Internet is a broadcast medium. Material posted on it can be monitored and tracked by computer.

However, the Internet can also be used "point to point" with obscure URLs being circulated within paedophile rings. In this way some of the limitations of distance, inherent within rings, might be done away with. "So although the Net does not fit the usual mode of paedophile activity," he says, "what it does do is to offer these people the chance of going international, and that causes us problems."

Hard-core pornography, as opposed to the very extremes, has in a different way also tended to erect barriers around itself to protect the unsuspecting viewer. This is notably in the rise of the pay-per-view site on the Web, accompanied by various sorts of identity checking techniques. Even material distributed without a commercial interest, from exhibitionists and the like, has also tended to disappear behind closed doors. The very high hit rates these sites attract have to be controlled by the Internet service providers to avoid their servers crashing, and they do so by imposing registration and a charge.

What is more disturbing is the association that some sex sites on the Web might have with organised crime. The electronic Journal of Infrastructural Warfare, which monitors Internet activity that can be construed as a threat, recently claimed that all types of organised crime were interested in sex on the Internet as a way to launder money. This is a continuation of the links between the more established sectors of the sex industry and organised crime. The attraction of the Internet is that, unlike sex bars or strip clubs, no one, especially government tax organisations, really has much idea what kind of turnover Web sites should achieve.

But even after discussing this element, Barrett remains optimistic. "The people most in favour of monitoring material on the Internet are actually those in the sex industry. They want to toe the line as long as the money keeps coming in." And he adds: "The Government and police have no interest in this at all. It has been made clear that the responsibility rests with the ISPs, whom ACPO is doing no more than advising for the most part."

Much of the reporting about sex on the Internet feeds a sense of moral panic. At its worst it resonates with the fears of a society that is still recovering from the shock that the devil is within, notably in the form of the paedophile. But even then, there is little evidence that the Internet extends the reach of these social evils. Rather it mirrors the established economic patterns of the sex industry as a whole, for better and for worse. And it is only a careful critique which can address that.