Bang goes the phone porn

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As porn gets handier we need to be sure we make mobile phones child-friendly, says technology analyst Bill Thompson.

There is going to be a lot of pornography on mobile phones in the next few years, at least if the latest research is to be believed.

Industry analysts Visiongain are forecasting that by 2006 worldwide profits from adult content transmitted to mobile phones will account for $4bn in an industry making a total of $70bn.

The improved connection speed of mobiles using GPRS and 3G, along with the vastly improved screen quality on the latest phones, might even mean that the experience is satisfactory for the viewer as well as profitable for the provider.

Mobile use may never dent the revenue streams from porn channels in business hotels, but it does seem that there are a lot people out there – mostly, I am assuming, men – who will pay to have sexually explicit material sent to their phone.

Whenever sex and new technology meet it causes problems for those who are concerned with public morality.

For example, the ease with which a phone can be used to call up pornographic images, whether still pictures or video, will create many issues around the inappropriate display of this stuff in public places.

At the moment shop displays and posters are regulated, but who is going to stop a bunch of young men from showing off what the technology can do in a pub, on a bus, or in the office?

We also need to think about how we ensure that adult material is not easily accessed by children. Although I have a reputation for being in favour of regulation of the internet, I do not think we should simply censor material suitable for adults or turn the whole web into a child-safe zone.

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But this does not mean that we do nothing: children need to be protected, and a combination of technical, educational and legal measures are needed to do this.

We’re still a long way from making the web safe for kids, and I don’t believe we’ll ever manage to make public chatrooms a safe space for children. Part of the problem is that these technologies were built from the start to be uncontrolled, open and accessible.

Putting protective measures in place, even something as straightforward as asking for proof of age, is complex and cumbersome, and goes against the spirit of the established chatrooms and websites.

However, mobile access to content is still new enough for us to make it safe without having to make significant changes to people’s expectations, and a recent announcement from Bango.net shows what can be done.

Bango is one of a number of companies that provides the technology and administration needed to provide chargeable content to mobile phones.

It started off as a way to get easy access to Wap sites, the cut-down version of the web available on mobiles, but now it is one of the main portals to mobile content in the UK.

It realised some time ago that people were going to start using phones to access adult material, and it also realised that its business would be damaged if it didn’t offer some way to ensure that children could not get at this content.

So it has just launched a new service that bars a mobile phone from accessing adult-rated content through Bango. Since it also requires the content providers to indicate whether material has sexual or violent content and rate it accordingly, the chances of children getting to an adult site, either accidentally or deliberately, are much reduced.

This means that if a parent gives their child a mobile, they can be fairly confident that it can’t be used to access unsuitable material, because the phone’s number is stored in the Bango database and any attempt to link to adult sites will be blocked.

Of course this facility won’t solve lots of other problems which come up once kids have mobiles, like text message bullying, or predatory adults using texts and picture messages to establish relationships with vulnerable children, but it is still to be welcomed.

Stopping our children from accessing adult content on their phones, and requiring the content providers to self-certify their content, is possible only because services like Bango are a gatekeeper for many companies.

Unlike the web, where this sort of control can only be done at the internet service provider end, and there are simply too many websites – and too many alternative ISPs – for it to be workable, the mobile industry is based around relatively few networks, relatively few gateways and relatively few content providers.

As the technology matures, this may no longer be the case, but at least by starting out with a system which does allow parental control Bango is helping ensure that the expectations of users and providers will be based around the idea that children need to be protected from some mobile content.

This can only be a good thing in the long term.