Internet pornography is pornography which is distributed via the Internet, primarily via websites, peer-to-peer software, IRC and through Usenet.

Internet pornography began spreading commercially almost at the same time as the Internet became a huge communications method for private home users in the middle 1990s. Like the videocassette recorder, the Internet has been effective because it allows people to view pornography anonymously in the privacy of their homes. Initially, most pornography distribution (typically scanned-in photos from magazines, often called Centerfolds) took place in special Usenet newsgroups, which provide the benefit of more or less anonymous posting, allowing easy circumvention of copyright restrictions. Textual pornography was also distributed via Usenet, e.g. in the group

Later, pornographic websites sprang up. These are restricted in many places, although usually to little effect. With the exception of child pornography, efforts at restricting the viewing of pornography over the internet have been largely ineffective because of the high demand and differing definitions in different places, which make restricting supply very difficult.

One of the first worries about pornographic web sites was that children might be able to easily access them. While there have been measures which have tried to restrict this, the material remains widely available and is increasingly being sent directly to random email accounts by spammers as part of marketing efforts for sites, leading to increasing demand for software products which can filter email as well as web pages. The most effective method to limit access by minors appears to be parental supervision, which has the significant advantage of allowing parents to make more personal decisions about what is appropriate for their children, according to the individual beliefs of the parent and the maturity of the child.

A significant concern has been the distribution of child pornography, one of the few areas which has been subject to significant law enforcement activity in many countries. Unlike normal pornography, the production and possession of child pornography is a crime in many jurisdictions, leading to a substantial number of prosecutions. Child pornography is today mostly distributed on the Internet in online communities that are by-invitation-only.

Today there are many sources of internet pornography; the most common are the web, usenet, IRC, instant messaging, and various peer-to-peer file sharing networks such as GNUtella and KaZaA. Efforts by some large copyright groups to restrict distribution of their works through file sharing networks resulted in rapid technological development, leading to the beginning of widespread availability in mid 2003 of file trading systems which use encryption and proxy systems to conceal the actual origin of the materials being exchanged. The effect of this on the ability to restrict the distribution of child pornography is so far unclear but it may make it significantly harder.

History of legislation in the U.S.

In the United States, the first attempt to regulate pornography on the internet was the federal Communications Decency Act of 1996, which prohibited the "knowing" transmission of "indecent" messages to minors and the publication of materials which depict, in a manner "patently offensive as measured by contemporary community standards, sexual or excretory activities or organs", unless those materials were protected from access by minors, for example by using credit card systems. Immediately challenged by a group of organizations spearheaded by the ACLU, both of these provisions were struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in Reno v. American Civil Liberties Union (1997)(521 U.S. 844). The "indecent transmission" and "patently offensive display" provisions were ruled to limit the freedom of speech guarantee of the First Amendment.

The second attempt was the narrower Child Online Protection Act (COPA) of 1998 which forced all commercial distributors of "material harmful to minors" to protect their sites from access by minors. "Material harmful to minors" was defined as materials that by "contemporary community standards" are judged to appeal to the "prurient interest" and that show sexual acts or nudity (including female breasts). Several states have since passed similar laws.

An injunction blocking the federal government from enforcing COPA was obtained in 1998. In 1999, the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the injunction and struck down the law, ruling that it was too broad in using "community standards" as part of the definition of harmful materials. In May 2002, the Supreme Court reviewed this ruling, found the given reason insufficient and returned the case to the Circuit Court. In March 2003, the 3rd Circuit Court again struck down the law as unconstitutional, this time arguing that it would hinder protected speech among adults. The administration appealed, and in October 2003 the Supreme Court agreed to review the case again.

The Children's Internet Protection Act (CIPA) of 2000 required that public libraries, as a condition of receiving federal subsidies for internet connectivity, employ filtering software to prevent patrons from using internet terminals to view images of obscenity and child pornography, and to prevent children from viewing images "harmful to minors", a phrase typically used for otherwise legal pornography. The act allowed librarians to disable the filtering software for adult patrons with "bona-fide research or other lawful purposes". The act was challenged by the American Library Association on First Amendment grounds, and enforcement of the act was blocked by a lower court. In June 2003, the Supreme Court reversed and ruled that the act was constitutional and could go into effect. U.S. v. American Library Association, No. 02-361, 2003.

See also