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such as the Immigration and Naturalization Service and the destination countries' police forces.
Pornography on the Net is difficult to write about if you love the Net at all, because there has been more bad media reporting on this topic than any other. The temptation is to deny it all and move on. But it's important to be accurate about this, because bad laws are being passed almost daily in the attempt to control the online circulation of pornography, and those media reports are often used as the prime evidence for why regulation is needed.
There are four basic things to say about pornography on the Net. First, it's out there. Second, it's easy to avoid. Third, it's a relatively small percentage of the many gigabytes of data flowing around the world. (At a recent count there were 168 Usenet newsgroups with sex-related names--but there are 20,000 newsgroups overall.) Fourth, pornography on the Net is not an isolated phenomenon, but must be placed in the wider social context of real life, with all the other sexually explicit media and lifestyle choices that make up our complex world.
To go with those basic truths, there are a number of myths about pornography on the Net that impede intelligent debate on the subject and therefore need to be debunked. Many are rooted in technical ignorance or misunderstandings.
First, there is a serious disparity between the amount of pornography available on the Net and the amount of attention it gets in the press. It's sensational stuff, and the transparency of the Net means we find out about cases that otherwise would have been private. There was the woman whose husband sued for divorce when he found logs of her cybersex sessions on the family hard drive; there was Sharon Lopatka, the Maryland housewife and part-time decorator who looked for and found someone to torture her to death in one of the sex newsgroups on Usenet; there was Jake Baker, the University of Michigan student who was prosecuted for posting a sick and violent fantasy using the name of a classmate (the charges were later dismissed); there was the $7 million that writer Jeff Goodell figured sex was putting in America Online's coffers every month. Those sex- and-death stories dominate media coverage of the Net for the same reason that they dominate the coverage of celebrities' and politicians' lives, as well as the plots of movies: they shock, they get attention, and they sell.
Second, the Net is not like television. A surprising (to Net people) number of non- Net users believe that you hit a button to connect to the Internet and pornography just flows, unwanted and unbidden, across your computer screen. This is not what happens, as anyone who's ever had to research pornography on the Net for a living knows. In general, pornography on the Net is like anything else on the Net: if you want to find it, you have to go out looking for it, and most of what you find will be useless crap or stuff that's better quality offline.
Things may change when there's a digital camera and a high-speed Internet link in every bedroom, but for now most of the available material is fairly poor quality, mostly scanned-in photographs from magazines (where are those copyright police when you need them?) and remarkably repetitive amateur (text) sexual fantasies that go to show how bad the teaching of sex education and anatomy in our schools really is. Material that is in any way unusual tends to keep recycling, in the way of the Net, so that even what's there is less than it seems. A newcomer might be stunned by the amount of material; return visitors will notice how much of it is repostings of stuff that's already made the rounds a number of times. A single example: in December 1996, I went looking for a specific fantasy I'd seen in 1994 about a young male who took a pill to turn himself into a female. (As a she, he became gorgeous, stacked, and in such a constant state of arousal that he couldn't do anything but hit the sack with bar pick-ups, but that's another unlikely story.) I found it recently reposted to the fantasy newsgroup alt.sex.stories with little trouble. It's fair to say that a lot of the shock about pornography online is coming from people who are unaware of what pornography is available offline.
However, it's also true that many Net users overestimate how difficult it is to find pornography online, partly because they never see any (since they're not looking for it), and partly because a few years ago it genuinely was much harder than it is
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