Picture: 123RF/PATRYKKOSMIDER
Picture: 123RF/PATRYKKOSMIDER

Online porn has critically shaped the internet as we know it. Two recent public debates, one involving Apple’s decision to scan iOS devices for child porn, the other following OnlyFans’ (quickly reversed) decision to ban adult content, show that the sex industry still has a role to play in setting the direction of technological progress. Though its importance in commercialising the internet is diminished, it has perhaps the clearest use case for censorship-beating, privacy-protecting tech.

Back when life on the internet (spelt with a capital I in those days) was concentrated in Usenet groups, five out of six images shared were estimated to be pornographic. In 2006, still in the pre-iPhone era, adult content accounted for more than 20% of Google searches from mobile phones (the next category by popularity was “entertainment” with 10%).  But the early internet and early phones were not really suited to high-quality porn.

“Every step up in quality — higher-resolution photographs, better-quality movies — required increasing amounts of bandwidth,” Patchen Barss, an oft-quoted proponent of the theory that porn is the cradle of tech, wrote in his book The Erotic Engine. “Pornography dominated the flow of images and video on the internet, and because there was a perpetual demand for more, different and better pornographic products, bandwidth needed to grow.”

Every step up in quality — higher-resolution photographs, better-quality movies — required increasing amounts of bandwidth.
Patchen Barss, author of "The Erotic Engine"

The adult industry’s adoption of video streaming in the days when even the simplest forms of tech were male dominated was arguably what pushed users to upgrade to better connections and equipment; wider adoption followed. Just as likely, without porn, online payment solutions would not have developed as quickly as they did during the free-for-all, piracy-fuelled years of the internet: there was not all that much people wanted to pay for on the web besides erotic content. In that sense, porn drove the monetisation of many web-based ideas and projects — and spurred the development of modern fintech. With gambling, it initially nurtured giants such as Germany’s now-fallen Wirecard.

The internet has grown to encompass the world, and porn, of course, could not keep up. One of the rare studies to actually measure porn traffic, published earlier in 2021, put the share of adult website users among its sample of 15,000 Italian cable customers at 12%. Their average session lasts about 18 minutes; it is hard to imagine what could make it longer.

The researchers from Italian and Austrian universities noted that from 2014 to 2017, the period during which they collected data, total traffic per customer almost doubled — but porn traffic showed no similar increase. It stands to reason that more recent advances in porn tech, such as immersive virtual reality shows or video-linked physical stimulation, will not drive progress in the broad market as earlier innovations did.

Grown-up, mainstream version of the internet is run, and policed, by big corporations. Big payment providers such as Visa and MasterCard are uneasy about working with adult content providers. In 2020, they suspended service to Pornhub and other properties of its corporate parent, MindGeek SARL, in response to reports of nonconsensual content on the platform. PayPal stopped facilitating payments to Pornhub-based sex workers in 2019. The distaste shown by several big banks and a change in MasterCard’s rules, which required stringent content review commitments, drove OnlyFans’ potentially suicidal decision in August to banish sex streams.

Apple announced it would scan iOS devices for known child porn images uploaded to its iCloud service, using a form of artificial intelligence to match pictures to an official database, and, once it was sure that something illegal was going on, alert the authorities. 

Both situations caused much outcry. No-one in their right mind would defend child porn, revenge porn, sex trafficking or any form of nonconsensual sex. But the internet’s trendsetting audience comes from the “porn generation”, one that has grown up with online sex content. You can blame it for distorting millennials’ and Z-ers sexuality — but the inescapable reality is that, to many of them, not recycling is a greater sin than watching porn. To this audience, letting sexual content creators earn their living is a more appealing concept than what often looks like corporate backside-covering masquerading as concern for the victims of sexual abuse.

In the Apple case, porn is not even the real issue. If Apple introduces client-side scanning in the name of fighting child abuse, it is arguably creating the potential for much less justifiable surveillance — a potential that the company denies. A few years ago, I was hugely ratioed on Twitter for a column that argued Big Tech’s embrace of end-to-end encryption had more to do with marketing than with privacy protection; client-side scanning defeats the encryption, showing how easily tech companies can take back the protections that users think they have been granted — and, among other problems, increasing the attack surface that malicious actors can use.

The public debate is not about smut or even sexual exploitation; at its core, it is about the ability of big business to limit freedom out of an abundance of corporate caution. As in the heady days of Larry Flynt’s US Supreme Court victory, porn serves as an uncomfortable but somewhat fitting avatar for freedom — at least to part of the internet community. The adult industry lacks the power to shape mass-market demand for new tech, but it can serve as a litmus test for new privacy-orientated solutions: accessible crypto-based payment systems that are agnostic about the kind of businesses they support, operating systems, messaging and cloud services that offer no anti-encryption back doors. 

During the Covid-19 pandemic, we have sacrificed much freedom and given much ground on privacy in the name of reducing the risk of illness for ourselves and our neighbours. A backlash — an increased resistance to intrusive controls, especially by big business — would be a natural reaction. And as in the old days of the internet, porn could suddenly find itself in the role of leading that charge.

Bloomberg Opinion. More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com/opinion

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