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The first time I went trawling the Net for pornography was in late 1994 (for an article for the British magazine Personal Computer World); following that, in early 1995, a BBC researcher came over to my house in quest of pornography on the Net. We spent three hours wandering uselessly around the Web not finding shocking pictures. The BBC researcher nodded solemnly, admitted he hadn't realized how hard it would be to find salacious material--and then used only the twenty seconds in which we were successful, made possible only because of a tip-off from a friend.
At the time, one of the limiting factors for pornography on the Net was, ironically, the popularity of any site that carried it: there wasn't much motive for a non- commercial site to supply the necessary overhead in hardware and network connections. For example, around that time one of the relatively few pornography Web sites in existence, part of a larger fine arts archive at the Netherlands' University of Delft, had shut down because the archive was so popular it was swamping the university's network. "The archive is transmitting unrestricted amounts of pictures (30,000 pictures per day)," wrote the archive's administrator on the (otherwise empty) Web page shortly after the closure, explaining the decision. "The network traffic generated by this archive was accounting for well over half of the total network traffic of Delft University. With over 10,000 visitors per day, this is (was?) one of the busiest Internet sites in the world. I don't like censorship at all, but closing the access to the pornographic pictures seems the only way to do something about the complaints above. During the past 1.5 years, the top 50 chart never contained a single non-pornographic picture."
Back then, if you really wanted sexual material you got out your credit card and coughed up for a subscription to an "adult" BBS--something most children wouldn't be able to do. At that time, the easy service on the Net was Gopher, a (text) menu- based indexing system that's still in use today, although most people now access those servers via a Web browser. (Back then the Web didn't have search engines--Yahoo! went up in 1994, and Altavista started up in December, 1995--so finding things required getting Web addresses by word of mouth.)
When you searched on the word "sex" across all of "gopherspace" using an engine known as Veronica, you got back an impressive-looking list of several thousand documents. These must have looked very tasty to tabloid hacks, but only a small amount of investigation showed they were such exceptionally titillating things as academic papers on the feminization of tadpoles, statistical surveys of postings to Usenet newsgroups (how often, how many kilobytes), and the FAQ files from the alt.sex groups. I mean, just fabulous stuff. The most salacious sounding entry on the list--"INTERNATIONAL PHONE SEX LINES"--was a series of Usenet articles from the tail-end of a thread with practically no content whatsoever. Even the FAQs, which of course are still around today, updated, aren't exactly fun: pages and pages of computer programmer-style revision history, such as (from the alt.sex.fetish FAQ), "May 21, 1994: added lots of shoe types in the vocabulary section," followed by the group's rules about what kind of material to post, plus information of interest to its readers--like how to take care of latex. The average twelve-year-old would find this stuff weird but disappointing. He might ask awkward questions, of course, but then so did my friend's six-year-old daughter the day she cut a story out of the newspaper to take to school for an assignment and demanded to know what an abortion was and what they meant about reducing the time limit.
Usenet was another story, or seemed to be: subscribing to a newsgroup like alt.binaries.pictures.erotica was simple enough, but you can't just post a picture or program file to Usenet any more than you can send it across the Internet by email without finagling. Both email and Usenet were originally designed to handle straight ASCII text; to post or email binary files you have to use a converter program to encode them into text for transmission. There's also a size limit, so really large files have to be split into pieces. If you're reading a newsgroup with a traditional newsreader such as those UNIX programs without the vowels (someone actually named newsreader programs nn and trn), what you see looks like PGP- encrypted gibberish. To turn the garbage text back into a picture for display, you have to collect all the pieces and run them through a decoding program that also
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