Sex, censorship, and the Web

Social networking and the mobile Web will defeat censorship every time, whether we like it or not

Looking for a hooker in San Francisco? No problem. Simply click on Craigslist's new adult services category and you'll be greeted by nearly 500 ads for sexual services catering to all tastes and predilections. (Ironically, this new human-managed category was meant to prevent the use of Craigslist as a center for prostitution, which led to several states threatening the classfiied-ads site.)

Meanwhile, the Chinese government backed off -- at least temporarily -- from its ill-conceived attempt to force computer makers to add porn filters to all PCs sold in the People's Republic. And Apple has added parental control software to iPhone OS 3.0, a move that was promptly followed by the launch of the App Store's first X-rated application.

[ Related: Enterprises become the battleground for social networking. | Bob Lewis' Advice Line blog: Social networking software for businesses. | Time to check out social networking and SOA. ]

All three of these incidents underscore the futility of attempts to keep sex off the Web, something both governments and businesses repeatedly try to do.

But there's a larger issue here, illustrated by the stunning success of  Iranian dissidents in bringing their case to the attention of the whole world, even as the Tehran government cracked down on foreign reporters. Social media and the mobile Web are running far ahead of old-school morality and political discipline.

China backs off
The inability of the elites to control communications has profound implications at every level of society. Take the workplace. It's one thing to stop employees from viewing pornography on company time; it's quite another to stop them from using social media to give the world a peek beneath the corporate kimono. It won't work. Anyone smart enough to use social media can easily hide his or her tracks and keep the boss at bay.

Aside from issues of civil liberties and the like, the surge of social media (particularly via sites like Facebook), the mobile Web, and messaging (including Twitter) is creating an enormous market opportunity.

I don't have any idea what the executives at Apple think of the Hottest Girls app, but whatever their private morality, adding parental controls to iPhone software shows that they saw an opportunity and went after it, albeit reluctantly at first. Incidentally, the Hottest Girls app is (temporarily?) unavailable: The developer's site was reportedly overwhelmed by traffic. Yes, there is some speculation that the app was censored, but because there are another dozen or so naked-lady type apps on the store, I doubt it.

I understand, of course, that China is a market that no PC maker can shun, particularly as the recession cuts deeply into North American and European sales. But the lack of backbone displayed by some of the major PC makers is, to put it mildly, disappointing.

According to reports in the New York Times, RConversation, and other sites, Sony and Acer rolled over and placed the buggy, intrusive Green Dam censorship software on machines destined for sale in China. But other manufacturers demurred and may well have lobbied behind the scenes, as Internet users in China, software makers, and foreign governments protested openly.

They got results: "Depending on the concrete situation, [they] can pre-install [the program] later," China's Ministry of Industry and Information Technology said in a statement issued through Xinhua, the official news agency.

Rebecca MacKinnon, who has blogged on issues of Chinese censorship for five years, says the move offered an important lesson for the online world. "There's been this impression in the Internet industry that when the Chinese government makes a demand, they have to roll over and play dead. The lesson here is that's not necessarily the case," she says.

The moral victory of the Iranian dissidents and the setback of the Chinese censors was inspiring, while Craigslist's de facto victory may be troubling to those who view prostitution as an evil. But the point remains: Social networking is out of the bottle, and the corporate and political elites will have to come to terms.

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