The internet wouldn’t exist without porn

Symbiotic smut.

“The internet is for porn”, as the cheeky Avenue Q song reminds us. And the statistics back that up - around 30 per cent of worldwide internet traffic is porn, and 12 per cent of all websites are dedicated to the dissemination of smut.

There’s a good reason for that – it makes a lot of money. Lobbyists campaigning to ban or restrict access to internet pornography need to be aware it has a symbiotic relationship with the technology itself, funding its very existence.

It is natural human instinct to turn every newly available medium to the sharing of the lewd. You can bet it didn’t take long for cave painting to evolve from hand prints and woolly mammoth hunts to unnaturally priapic self-portraits.

In a former life as an IT consultant, I worked for a number of telecoms giants whose shiny new networks and successive generations of mobile services were partly funded by sex lines, often run out of unlikely locations like Peru. One mobile services company boosted the profits of its promotional SMS business with TV dial-a-babe offerings. 

But the internet has made pornography available on a whole new scale without hard to explain telephone bills or visits to out-of-town newsagents. I completed my IT degree the year Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web, and overnight bedroom-bound lads evolved from play-by-email Dungeons and Dragons to the painfully slow line-by-line downloading of pictures of naked ladies over shonky modems (“What’s that…? Eww!”).

Despite the claims by certain public figures, internet pornography doesn’t arrive on our screens unbidden. Even Googling “internet pornography” for this article didn’t offer me anything the least bit titillating on the first page of results.

That’s not to say it’s hard to get hold of online pornography if that’s what you’re looking for, far from it in fact, and internet giants are coming under increased pressure to make it harder for children to access it.

Part of the answer is to use automated internet parental controls. According to web security specialists Kapersky 23 per cent of blocked searches in the UK over the first five months of 2013 were for porn. But parents need to be educated that these sorts of content filters must be used alongside parental supervision and education for full effect.

But more widely, if we make legal pornography harder to access by consenting adults, will we hamper the march of innovation? It’s a little aired dirty secret of the telecom and internet giants that the recession-proof profits of pornography are what fund the evolution of technology.  

Diane Abbott, Labour MP and shadow minister for public health, says: "Porn is the biggest driver of traffic to Google. You cannot allow the industry to drive the pace of change. So much money is riding on what happens."

While kicking internet companies in the bank balance will get their attention as far as illegal content and access by minors is concerned, a wider clampdown on internet pornography may just hamper the arrival of the next internet. Bring on the smut.

Photograph: Getty Images

Berenice Baker is Defence Editor at Strategic Defence Intelligence.

John Moore
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The man who created the fake Tube sign explains why he did it

"We need to consider the fact that fake news isn't always fake news at the source," says John Moore.

"I wrote that at 8 o'clock on the evening and before midday the next day it had been read out in the Houses of Parliament."

John Moore, a 44-year-old doctor from Windsor, is describing the whirlwind process by which his social media response to Wednesday's Westminster attack became national news.

Moore used a Tube-sign generator on the evening after the attack to create a sign on a TfL Service Announcement board that read: "All terrorists are politely reminded that THIS IS LONDON and whatever you do to us we will drink tea and jolly well carry on thank you." Within three hours, it had just fifty shares. By the morning, it had accumulated 200. Yet by the afternoon, over 30,000 people had shared Moore's post, which was then read aloud on BBC Radio 4 and called a "wonderful tribute" by prime minister Theresa May, who at the time believed it was a genuine Underground sign. 

"I think you have to be very mindful of how powerful the internet is," says Moore, whose viral post was quickly debunked by social media users and then national newspapers such as the Guardian and the Sun. On Thursday, the online world split into two camps: those spreading the word that the sign was "fake news" and urging people not to share it, and those who said that it didn't matter that it was fake - the sentiment was what was important. 

Moore agrees with the latter camp. "I never claimed it was a real tube sign, I never claimed that at all," he says. "In my opinion the only fake news about that sign is that it has been reported as fake news. It was literally just how I was feeling at the time."

Moore was motivated to create and post the sign when he was struck by the "very British response" to the Westminster attack. "There was no sort of knee-jerk Islamaphobia, there was no dramatisation, it was all pretty much, I thought, very calm reporting," he says. "So my initial thought at the time was just a bit of pride in how London had reacted really." Though he saw other, real Tube signs online, he wanted to create his own in order to create a tribute that specifically epitomised the "very London" response. 

Yet though Moore insists he never claimed the sign was real, his caption on the image - which now has 100,800 shares - is arguably misleading. "Quintessentially British..." Moore wrote on his Facebook post, and agrees now that this was ambiguous. "It was meant to relate to the reaction that I saw in London in that day which I just thought was very calm and measured. What the sign was trying to do was capture the spirit I'd seen, so that's what I was actually talking about."

Not only did Moore not mean to mislead, he is actually shocked that anyone thought the sign was real. 

"I'm reasonably digitally savvy and I was extremely shocked that anyone thought it was real," he says, explaining that he thought everyone would be able to spot a fake after a "You ain't no muslim bruv" sign went viral after the Leytonstone Tube attack in 2015. "I thought this is an internet meme that people know isn't true and it's fine to do because this is a digital thing in a digital world."

Yet despite his intentions, Moore's sign has become the centre of debate about whether "nice" fake news is as problematic as that which was notoriously spread during the 2016 United States Presidential elections. Though Moore can understand this perspective, he ultimately feels as though the sentiment behind the sign makes it acceptable. 

"I use the word fake in inverted commas because I think fake implies the intention to deceive and there wasn't [any]... I think if the sentiment is ok then I think it is ok. I think if you were trying to be divisive and you were trying to stir up controversy or influence people's behaviour then perhaps I wouldn't have chosen that forum but I think when you're only expressing your own emotion, I think it's ok.

"The fact that it became so-called fake news was down to other people's interpretation and not down to the actual intention... So in many interesting ways you can see that fake news doesn't even have to originate from the source of the news."

Though Moore was initially "extremely shocked" at the reponse to his post, he says that on reflection he is "pretty proud". 

"I'm glad that other people, even the powers that be, found it an appropriate phrase to use," he says. "I also think social media is often denigrated as a source of evil and bad things in the world, but on occasion I think it can be used for very positive things. I think the vast majority of people who shared my post and liked my post have actually found the phrase and the sentiment useful to them, so I think we have to give social media a fair judgement at times and respect the fact it can be a source for good."

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.