Britain is punching above its weight in the global porn stakes

 

If Wikipedia is to be believed Britain is the 9th most connected country in the world in terms of the number of internet users, or 14th if measured as a percentage of the total population who go online. However, thanks to some excellent analytical and detective work by US filtering company MetaCert,  we learn we are No. 3 in the world porn stakes after, respectively, America and Holland. And by the way No. 4, Germany, is a long way behind us. We host (accommodate) more than six times the volume of porn they do.

Porn in the USA, Holland and the UK

MetaCert tells me the USA provides a berth for just under 4.2 million domains containing porn. These carry over 428 million porn pages. Incidentally two-thirds of all US porn sits in the Golden State, California.

The US accounts for 60% of the world’s web pages containing porn. They are global leaders by a mile. 80%+ is on web sites ending in .com. The domain dedicated to porn, .xxx, still registers less than 1%. That is a great pity as I think we would all rather know it had been corralled into a recognizable and definable space.

Partly the US preponderance in online porn is a legacy of the US being first in the field with the internet generally but it is also connected to the vast hosting infrastructure which they have at their disposal. The US is one of the least expensive places in the world to rent server space. And of course in California they have all those guys who are among the best at making movies.

Holland is home to 1.8 million domains carrying 187 million pages of porn. That’s more than a quarter of everything that’s out there.

The UK shelters 512,000 domains which between them carry over 52 million pages of porn. That’s “only” 7% of it all but we still get bronze.

Porn in Germany

Take a look at Germany. Numerically they have more internet users than we do but  Germany lays claim to only 80,000 domains containing porn. It is spread across 8 million pages. That’s a measly 1.16% world share. No medal for them.

I appreciate that the German language is not as widely spoken as English but I doubt that is the entire explanation for their commendably lower level of engagement. Germany has very strict and particular rules about hard core porn web sites hosted on their turf. They require the publishers to have age verification mechanisms in place. I’m guessing that more than anything discourages a lot of rough trade.

The top hosting countries

Now I get why we would be behind internet-leading, 1st Amendment America. I wasn’t surprised to learn the famously liberal Netherlands was up there although their disproportionate dedication to the cause does deserve a special prize of some sort. But buttoned-up-Britain. No. 3 in the world?

In search of an explanation I thought I should check out what share of all web hosting we had. If the Royal Pingdom data is any guide it looks like we are No. 4 behind the USA, China and…….wait for it…..Germany. In fact Germany seems to have more than double the UK’s web hosting capacity, so how come we have more than six times the porn? Surely this is connected to the way the Germans have set things up?

But it’s all legal

Now we are entitled to assume that all or at any rate the great majority of the porn being hosted in the UK is legal so there can be no objection of that sort to us being No.3.  I was just amazed to discover that this is so.  I wonder if we are equally prominent in other genres of internet content?

Moreover it is no part of my argument to suggest the UK should never host or allow legal porn to be published. My beef has always been about the ease with which children can be exposed to it or can access it. Thus, if the Germans can insist that hard core porn publishers on their territory must tie the supply of such content to an age verification process, couldn’t we try something similar? I don’t know for sure but I’m guessing most porn sites hosted in Germany are in German and are directed largely at people living in, er, Germany where they have a domestic age verification system. But even so, ten out of ten for effort meine Freunde.

An Anglo-German alliance?

Following the decision in R v Perrin in our Court of Appeal it is clear that English law requires the publishers of internet based hard core porn to put their offerings behind an age verification barrier. This is not only meant to protect children it is also designed to keep porn away from anyone who is not positively seeking it out.

I’m assuming all UK-based porn publishers comply with R v Perrin and that those who do not are owned or controlled overseas by non-UK interests who nonetheless know they are delivering their content to UK IP addresses. Their continuing failure to bring themselves into line with R v Perrin is therefore rooted, fundamentally, in the British police’s lamentable lack of interest in pursuing the matter. I think if UK cops made one or two attempts to extradite several leading culprits it would do wonders. 

Anyway, my main question is why do we not follow the German example? As well as requiring hard core porn publishers to follow R v Perrin, couldn’t we say to hosting companies based here that they must ensure anyone who comes to them wanting to host hard core porn that would be accessible from UK IP addresses must show they have a mechanism which allows them to comply with R v Perrin? I appreciate this might put our hosting companies at a temporary disadvantage vis-a-vis their competitors in other jurisdictions but it hasn’t very obviously harmed the German hosting industry. We cannot wait for everyone to do the right thing before we decide to join in. Maybe we could have an Anglo-German alliance on this? It would handy for us to be able to agree with Mrs Merkel about something.

Finding porn on the internet

Of course we know how easy it is to find porn on the internet using any of the search engines. But porn is not always exactly where you might expect it to be.

Through the clever use of their ultra accurate web crawlers MetaCert can not only pinpoint web sites publishing porn it also picks up individual pages. So, were it to exist, you would not be surprised at what was to be found on www.naughtypornstuff.com but it may have only two pages. Against that www.barnsleypoets.com might, without its owners knowing, have hundreds of thousands of pages displaying porn.

Being able to identify and count the individual pages is important. MetaCert can find porn wherever it is on the web, even within large platforms that supposedly forbid it. Here I’m thinking in particular about Facebook, Tumblr and Twitter.

Companies that want to demonstrate the seriousness of their intent to rid their site of porn should talk to MetaCert. I’d say Tumblr ought to be at the head of the queue but even dear old Facebook should consider what more it can do to keep out porn or pick it up and delete it without always having to wait for a report. Let’s face it people don’t report for all kinds of reasons. Those who might report will probably only do so if they find an item to be offensive or objectionable. Not everybody objects to porn so it stays there. It shouldn’t.

In the name of the UK  

There are a couple of other features of how the internet operates in the UK which I think ought to be examined while we are about it.

.uk is Great Britain’s flagship in cyberspace. It’s our national country code domain name. You often see it expressed as .co.uk, .org.uk, .me.uk or even, in a limited number of cases, simply as .uk.

Owning and using a .uk address

The rules governing the use and ownership of .co.uk and the other commercially available uk domains are predominantly determined by Nominet, a not-for-profit independent entity. Like the IWF it was established in 1996 at a time when few civil servants and even fewer politicians understood much about this new-fangled American thing called the internet. They had read about it in the newspapers but never actually used it and maybe they thought, as Bill Gates once did, that it wasn’t going to be important, just another passing techno-fad. I imagine the powers that be were simply relieved when a group of private individuals and entities seemed willing to own and deal with a load of nerdy stuff that would otherwise be a baffling challenge for Whitehall. Thus was Nominet born.

Since its formation Nominet has allowed anyone from anywhere in the world to buy domains with several of the uk endings. Not everyone does that e.g. in the US, Canada and Japan there is a residency requirement or something which shows a real link with the country. Nominet’s current and longstanding practice has therefore allowed people to pass themselves off as having a UK connection when in truth they may have none.

In an earlier consultation Nominet’s management (finally) proposed that the loophole was closed by stipulating that a .uk owner must have a “UK presence”. It got knocked back. Not sure why. In the latest round of consultation the proposal is that an entity wishing to purchase a .uk domain has to have a “UK address for service”. Hmmm. On reflection I’m not sure I like the sound of that but who knows if even that modest alteration will go through? Change is often not easy, especially with Nominet’s quarrelsome clientele and their complicated governance system which seems to favour those deeply invested in the status quo. MetaCert found 17,000 domains in co.uk that were hosting porn. I wonder what sort of links with Britain the owners of these sites have?

Then there’s Nominet’s policy on names.  Aside from principally telling would-be domain name buyers that, in composing their domain name of choice, they can only use a limited number of unaccented Roman characters Nominet’s naming policy can be succinctly summed up in a few short words: there isn’t one.

Here is a copy of a screenshot I took from the GoDaddy web site yesterday. They sell domain names under a contract they have with Nominet.

RH

www.rapeher.co.uk is a theoretical possibility, as are the other ones shown. However, I checked. Nominet did not dispute that I could have completed the sale and used that domain.  MetaCert found many other names that were also utterly appalling but, unlike “rapeher”, they are actually being used right now. They all had .uk at the end. I am not going to repeat them here. Take my word for it.

Why has it not occurred  to Nominet to disallow names of that sort? Nominet needs to institute an urgent review of its naming policies and frankly so should ICANN, the global body that manages the domain name system.

Nominet and the public interest

As we have seen Nominet is an independent entity. The Government and Parliament has no direct responsibility for it but, ultimately, Nominet exists and does what it does because the Government and Parliament are content to allow it so to do. In many other countries the national name is directly managed by Government or works to its detailed instructions.

The Government and Parliament have a responsibility for UK plc and all who sail in her. To the extent that our domain name system is in any way important to our national success Ministers and Parliament must be satisfied with the way Nominet does its job. In particular they must be satisfied that Nominet always acts wholly and solely in the public interest. I’m not sure many Ministers or MPs will be feeling that way this morning.

About John Carr

John Carr is a member of the Executive Board of the UK Council on Child Internet Safety, the British Government's principal advisory body for online safety and security for children and young people. In the summer of 2013 he was appointed as an adviser to Bangkok-based ECPAT International. Amongst other things John is or has been a Senior Expert Adviser to the United Nations, ITU, the European Union, a member of the Executive Board of the European NGO Alliance for Child Safety Online, Secretary of the UK's Children's Charities' Coalition on Internet Safety. John has advised many of the world's largest internet companies on online child safety. In June, 2012, John was a appointed a Visiting Senior Fellow at the London School of Economics and Political Science. More: http://johncarrcv.blogspot.com
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