Smut goes wireless; critics sound alarm

By Jessie Seyfer
Mercury News

Call it pornography for iPods. Smut for smart-phones. Call it what you will, mobile pornography is a growing business.

Adult content is already the top Google search for most mobile Web browsers, and thousands of soft-core porn videos have been downloaded since appearing on Apple Computer’s iTunes store. With the popularity of video-enabled phones and music players like the video iPod, mobile porn seems like a natural next big thing.

Analysts confirm that yes, it’s growing. And critics are already railing against it. Analysts caution, however, that it will probably never become as widespread on mobile devices as it has become on the Internet.

“Adult services are not a killer application in waiting,” said Nitesh Patel, of Strategy Analytics.

Many cell phone service providers are reluctant to associate themselves with porn purveyors and feel it’s more important to appear family-friendly. In the United States, cell phone companies act as a gatekeeper for most mobile phone content and are so far regulating themselves when it comes to adult entertainment.

All the major carriers — Cingular, Verizon, Sprint and T-Mobile — have voluntarily chosen not to directly offer any adult content for download, said Roxanne Robbins, a spokeswoman for CTIA-The Wireless Association, a trade group.

But many mobile phones now have Web browsers, which can make videos, photos or text available for download with a credit card.

Sales of dirty videos, naughty chats and pornographic images over mobile phones reached about $500,000 globally in 2004, and were expected to reach $2.1 billion by 2009, Juniper Research reports. But physical limitations of the devices, financial and cultural barriers will keep it from attaining massive success, Patel said.

In Europe, where it’s slightly easier than in the United States to get adult content on cell phones, adult downloads don’t represent a huge part of cell phone companies’ business, he said.

“Adult services add maybe 2 or 3 percent on top of the bottom line,” he said. For companies in the United States, “it’s not going to kill them if they don’t have it.”

And another thing. Who wants to watch porn on such a teeny screen?

The screen size is “inferior for viewing that type of content,” Patel said. “It might be OK for a gimmicky show for your friends at the pub to have a bit of a laugh, but I don’t think you’ll see people seriously using that way.”

But author Violet Blue, a San Francisco-based author of numerous books on sexuality, begs to differ.

“I think it’s going to catch on in a big way,” she wrote in an e-mail interview. “It’s got all the things that made Web porn successful: privacy, in terms of accessing content, and anonymity, but also portability. Porn is no longer tied to a TV or computer, you can enjoy it anywhere, and with earbuds, quietly.”

Although mobile-phone carriers have so far backed off porn, adult content such as R-rated movies and mature-rated games could be on the way. With new video services such as Verizon’s V CAST and Cingular Video gaining popularity, representatives from those carriers say they are hashing out their own content guidelines, which will be much like the standard ratings for movies, TV and games.

It’s harder for carriers to monitor videos and pictures that are purchased indirectly through the browsers on cell phones. But carriers such as Verizon said they were working on developing tools parents can use to restrict their children’s access to such sites.

That’s hasn’t stopped certain groups from sounding alarm bells about mobile porn. Parents need to know that the little device in your child’s hands isn’t just a phone, says Jack Samad of the Ohio-based National Coalition for the protection of Children and Families. It’s a miniature computer that should be monitored just like a home computer.

“Parents are clueless in handing that phone to their kids,” Samad said. “The technology embedded on the latest phones — parents don’t know how their kids are applying that technology.”

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