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Porn attitudes may have changed, but not quickly enough for Don Smith. For relatively mild satirical FX films he received a $100K fine, was banished from having an Internet connection in his home and has had to wait more than two years for Brian Greenspan to get his case to appeal court. As of March 20, 2005 he is still waiting for the reserved judgment. [He lost]

Kind of Blue

Can porn really be acceptable?
A new website thinks it can

The porn gods were definitely smiling on us the day we launched, says Jonno d'Addario, the editor of Fleshbot dot com, a new venture which brands itself as a showcase of all the porn that digital technology and distribution has made possible.

He's referring to the infamous sex tape of New York socialite Paris Hilton, which broke on the Internet the very day that Fleshbot hit the web. On the back of the buzz surrounding the Hilton video, Fleshbot soared to more than 1m hits in its first week when it launched a fortnight ago.

The site, a magazine-style weblog funded through advertising, is the latest addition to the stable of Gawker Media, the brainchild of Nick Denton, the former FT journalist turned dotcom guru. But one of the most surprising things about Fleshbot's launch was that, despite the lurid subject matter, there was a distinct lack of criticism from inside the web community.

In the real world, a well-known, mainstream brand launching a porn based title would expect to draw fire - just consider the flak that the Express owner Richard Desmond's top-shelf sidelines have received. But Fleshbot has been more likely to draw positive feedback than murmurs of discontent.

Intelligent writing about porn will always find an audience - but I think we've been helped along by certain factors, says d'Addario - including the increasing acceptance of porn as a topic of mainstream conversation.

Even the conventional press is in agreement. Fleshbot might best be described as an erudite pornography site, wrote the New York Times, with the same kind of catty writing and timely links that have made Gawker a must-read for New York's gossip crowd.

Despite the hype, Gawker's sites only bring in enough cash to cover costs. But it's not only the small fry who draw respect rather than reprimands. Bigger fish in the Internet pond have started shifting their position on adult content. Yahoo!, which banned adult products and adverts from its American portal two years ago, is carrying advertising for candid materials again - including ads for hardcore-sex sites. The move, which came as a result of the company's £1.8bn takeover of search engine group Overture in October, currently affects a minority of smaller sites recently brought under the Yahoo! umbrella.

The company remains steadfast in defence of its decision. Our intention is to ensure that consumer interests are best served and that consumers, advertisers and partners benefit from the highest quality online experience, says a Yahoo! spokesperson. We evaluate our practices on an ongoing basis.

While this volte-face might strike puritan campaigners as a betrayal, it also shows that even the largest web companies can sometimes be prepared to put profits before prurience - especially when the sums involved are often substantial.

But it is not just the balance sheet which has influenced this increasingly liberal attitude towards online pornography - it is also reflective of the current mood of the US media. Usually, the cliché goes, America is 10 years ahead of Britain. But this time we're talking about sex, not obesity. In a post-political correctness backlash that might make British readers recall the early 90s, it is only now that unashamed sexualisation - across all media - is feeling the trickle-down effect of America's own Loaded revolution.

Top-shelf material has been brought into more fashionable territory, given edge, wit and sarcasm. Denton has even gone so far as to say he comes from the Felix Dennis school of publishing - a reference to the latter's success with raunchy-but mainstream titles such as Maxim.

As well as having to cope with society's tacit acceptance of titillation, many anti-pornography campaigners are finding it hard to keep up their struggle in the face of the seemingly awesome and unstoppable power of the web. Issues such as child pornography apart, many champions of censorship seem to have capitulated. One high-profile activist even admitted that she does not keep up with it any more.

Some remain convinced that they can change opinion, however. Bel Mooney, the author and journalist, who once worked for Penthouse svengali Bob Guccione, is among those who continue to advocate online censorship.

Nowadays the Internet is, in effect, an endless gallery of pornographic images and acts, accessed in the comfort of your own home, she said earlier this year. To speak of regulation may appear to be wishful thinking, in the face of the reality of the Internet. But I believe it is important for each of us to know what is going on, to be aware that pornography is not just natural, harmless fun.

But despite such protestations, the undeniable fact that sex has always been seen as a major driver in the online market remains. And now the same level of impetus is being put across other new media - such as palmtops, picture MMS, and particularly video messaging.

We believe the consumer market for subscribed wireless adult media has enormous potential, says Charles Prast, the president and CEO of Private Media Group, a huge adult entertainment organisation which has joined up with a number of telecoms firms to provide adult content for mobile phones and palmtops.

This shift is eroding the dividing line between the clean Internet - colonised by respectable dotcoms and telecommunications providers - and the longstanding reputation of the web as a haven for pornography.

Another reason behind changing attitudes could be down to the transformation of the online population. The web used to be peopled by computing professionals. But now the average broadband web user has become less technically literate and more classically liberal - typical of a post-60s generation brought up on sex, drugs and freedom of choice.

New York's Village Voice magazine calls Fleshbot the perfect way to conceal your animal urges beneath a veneer of geek intellectualism. This approach, of sex as pop-culture pursuit, is reflective of a cultural elite more likely to look to Eminem than Andrea Dworkin.

That's bound to continue, says d'Addario. Although I'd hate it if it became too mainstream. Nothing would be more dreary... porn should always be dirty - that's what makes it fun.

Ultimately, the aphorism that sex sells is perhaps beginning to hold true for the big hitters as well as those looking to make a quick profit. Of course, the divide between established, mainstream Internet companies and adult-content providers remains. But thanks to a relaxation in public attitudes, the web's bluechip firms are slowly inching towards a corporate realism, in which adult content exists not as a moral quagmire, but as a way of strengthening the bottom line.


Sex sells especially to Web surfers
Internet porn a booming billion-dollar industry

(CNN) -- Gone are the furtive visits to seedy theaters and the fear of being outed as some perverted purchaser of porn. Now, all you need to indulge anonymously in the XXX world is your trusty personal computer and a good connection to the Internet.

It's difficult to derive reliable figures from an industry that, despite flirtations with the mainstream, is made up of many small shops that prefer to keep a low profile. But the figures that exist paint a picture of a booming online field, fueled by the relatively low costs of setting up shop, fickle consumers in constant search of new thrills and the promise of quick profits.

The flood of sites competing for attention is fueling a torrent of X-rated spam, resulting in minors being exposed to adult content and annoying marketing ploys that spurred the recent approval in Congress of the first national effort to stem the flood of unwanted e-mail.

Attorney General John Ashcroft's office has launched dozens of investigations of adult content businesses and filed an obscenity case against Extreme Associates, a California porn firm that sold violent sex videos by mail and over the Internet.

It's an enormous business ... There's a lot of money to be made, said Sean Kaldor, an analyst with Nielsen/NetRatings, which estimated that 34 million visited porn sites in August -- about one in four Internet users in the United States.

The average user is looking at 121 pages, going back six times and spending an hour and seven minutes every month looking at adult-related material, Kaldor said.

All that browsing has caused the number of pornography Web pages to soar during the past six years, with over 1.3 million sites serving up about 260 million pages of erotic content, according to a study released in September by the Seattle, Washington-based Web-filtering company N2H2.

N2H2's database of porn sites, a company spokesman said, includes many low-budget, fly-by-night and sometimes unscrupulous operators hoping to rake in their share of a market that the National Research Council estimates to be in the $1 billion range annually.

The council, which advises Congress on technology, issued a report in 2002 that predicts the online porn industry will grow to a $5-$7 billion business within five years.

People should be concerned, said N2H2's David Burt, because of the ease with which children can stumble on porn sites accidentally and the ease with which people can stumble upon this in the workplace, creating liability issues.

Kathee Brewer, technology editor of porn industry news site AVN Online, said the increase in adult Internet pages has spurred opposition from conservative groups and heightened government scrutiny. She said critics of porn sites are attempting to blur the lines between law-abiding adult content and banned obscene material.

People can be easily led, and the mere twist of a phrase -- like substituting 'obscenity' for 'pornography' -- can have a profound effect on basically good folk who want to do the right thing but don't know exactly how to go about it, Brewer wrote recently in an essay about conservative groups that support porn-filtering software.

Instead of government intervention, Brewer urged the industry to police itself by keeping minors away from explicit content and cutting down on spam e-mail. At the same time, she said, it should be acknowledged that porn has been one of the few profitable Internet businesses from the start, employing thousands of people and generating millions in revenues for site owners, Web hosting companies and computer-hardware firms.

Experts say the industry has been on the forefront of many innovations that have been adopted by mainstream sites, such as new payment systems, ad revenue models, chat and broadband.

One of the most interesting things is to watch how these sites pioneer new technologies, said Kaldor, the Nielsen/NetRatings analyst.

Online Porn Grows Up

Kaldor said the industry is showing signs of maturity.

Password services have sprung up, often charging an annual fee to deliver access to hundreds of small sites, which share the subscription revenues.

Large firms also have consolidated power by providing free content to smaller affiliate sites. The affiliates post the free content and then try to channel visitors to the large sites, which give the smaller sites a percentage of the fees paid by those who sign up.

Another way some adult Webmasters make money is by forwarding traffic to another porn site in return for a small per-consumer fee. In many cases, the consumer is sent to the other sites involuntarily, which is known in the industry as mousetrapping. Surfers who try to close out a window after visiting an adult site are sent to another Web page automatically. This can repeat dozens of times, causing users to panic and restart their computers in order to escape, the National Research Council found.

A fourth trend is for adult sites to cater to niche audiences.

There's a Web site for just about every kink, said Scott Fayner, who writes for LukeFord.com, a site that posts porn industry news and gossip.

Experts say tech advances and the growing use of broadband will fuel even more growth in the industry.

Porn and the Future

All of which is prompting concerns about what impact the onslaught of porn might have on future generations raised on a steady stream of adult images. Some believe porn is creating unrealistic expectations among couples.

A recent article in New York magazine contained interviews with men who said they were hooked on Internet porn.

Dude, all of my friends are so obsessed with Internet porn that they can't sleep with their girlfriends unless they act like porn stars, a 26-year-old businessman told the article's author.

Just imagine the adolescents who, you know, their sexual coming of age has totally coincided with the Internet and high-speed connections, reporter David Amsden said. As opposed to the 13-year-old boy [before the Internet existed] who is lucky to find one Playboy magazine.

Like it or hate it, Internet porn is here to stay, Amsden said. And the key, said sex therapist Laura Berman, is to keep it in check.

There's always a role for pornography and for fantasies, if it's used to the benefit of the couple, Berman said.

CNN producer Linda Keenan contributed to this report.