Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

Sexually-explicit materials: How much of a problem?

A. Is There Sexually-Explicit Material On The Internet?

The following table shows, in the left-hand column, words and phrases that were used as search terms in the search engines listed across the top and the number of web site matches each engine found for each word or phrase as of August, 1997. Note that some search engines found matches in the millions. Note also that different search engines have different methods for finding matches. In a case where the search is defined by more than one word, for example "sex pictures," some search engines will match a web site to the search if it has either word, while others will only match sites that contain both words. Finally, be aware that a site that matches, for example, a search on "pornography" is not necessarily a sexually-explicit site. It could also be an informational site or a site protesting sexually-explicit material.

Search Words and Phrases Google
www.google.com
Yahoo!
www.yahoo.com
MSN*
www.msn.com
Netscape
www.netscape.com
Ask Jeeves/ask.com*
www.askjeeves.com
NightSurf
www.nightsurf.com
"pornography"
2,390,000
142
143
1,027
0
200
"sex"
84,800,000
4,213
2,495
39,065
185
345
"porno"
14,200,000
578
40
1,806*
0
265
"porn"
37,000,000
1,240
106
11,244*
0
277
"erotic"
8,700,000
1,555
185
4,546*
200
284
"erotica"
4,190,000
422
42
353*
200
267
"porn pictures"
838,000
4,416
3
4,292*
0
264
"porn pics"
1,030,000
2,843
0
3,483*
0
264
"sex pics"
1,070,000
3,032
0
6,860*
0
265
"sex pictures"
1,560,000
4,541
36
12,239*
0
264
"erotic pictures"
577,000
338
53
1,173
0
264
"erotic pics"
653,000
100
1
496
0
264
"free sex pictures"
1,050,000
100
1
9,411
0
264
"free sex pics"
727,000
2,369
0
6,230
0
264
"free porn pics"
586,000
354
0
3,315
0
264
"free porn pictures"
550,000
2,493
0
3,806
0
264
"pornographic stories"
106,000
4
0
258
0
264
"erotic stories"
518,000
515
42
1,459
0
264

*For most of these searches both MSN.com and ask.com referred the user to Nightsurf.com, and adult search engine. The page that immediately followed these searches contained two links: one link sent the user back to MSN.com or Ask.com where non-pornographic search results were shown, the other link sent the user to Nightsurf.com. In order to better understand these numbers it should be noted that these words through Nightsurf's search engine and the results listed above were all sites with explicit material. Nightsurf.com is promoted as "Internet for adults, by adults", but one does not have to provide any proof of age to use Nightsurf's search engine.
The date of all searches is January 22, 2002.

B. How Does One Find Such Material?

1. Through Yahoo.

Yahoo (www.yahoo.com) is a search engine that internally categorizes topics and further divides its own categories into more specific categories until it reaches a point where it provides links to external web sites that match the specific topic. The following charts illustrate paths that can be taken through Yahoo to gain access to web sites with sexually-explicit contents. The words and phrases in quotes are the titles of Yahoo's internal categories.

Yahoo Search #1

[Yahoo Search #1]

Yahoo Search #2

[Yahoo Search #1]

Sexually-explicit material is accessible through Yahoo. But, as the charts show, in each case a number of steps must be taken to reach web sites with sexually-explicit contents.

2. Through Google

Today Google (www.google.com) is the leading standard search engine. Google does not internally categorize topics, rather, Google operates by taking a search word or phrase and searching its entire database for web sites that match the search word or phrase. This is the way most search engines function. The following Google searches are, therefore, typical of searches that can be done with most search engines.

Google Search #1
Searching word:"porno"; number of matches: 6,650,000.
First link: Porno search, largest adult search engine on the net.
Page 1: had separate links categorized by sexual fetishes and an indication of how many sites were linked to each category. Contained obscene language as well as advertisements in the margins that contained obscene pornographic images of both men and women. I clicked on the first category entitled "amateur."
Page 2: list of "amateur" links including more obscene advertisements. I followed one of the offered links.
Page 3: picture of topless girl over a sign that read "Warning Adults Only!" Page contained very explicit advertisements with naked girls reading "click here," and flashing "free pics" signs. I clicked on one of the links.
Page 4: full nudity and various links to other pages.

Second Link:
Page 1: contained pornographic images and advertisements saying "1000s of videos! Click here." I followed one of the links.
Page 2: very explicit moving pornographic images functioning as links to different kinds of adult sites. Many links including a chain of explicit pop-up adds containing pornographic images.

Third Link:
Page 1: contained separate links for members, those who wanted to join, and a free tour. Pornographic material and categories of pictures found on first page as well. I followed the free tour link.
Page 2: contained nude and pornographic pictures.

Google Search #2
Search word: "free porno pics"; number of matches 412,000.
First Link:
Page 1: contained an "Adults Only" warning message above a pornographic picture, I followed the enter link.
Page 2: contained a list of the site's contents including links to free picture galleries. I followed the first link.
Page 3: contained nude pictures of women in sexually explicit positions.

Second Link:
Page 1: contained explicit pornographic images and a warning to leave the site if one is under eighteen years of age. I followed the link marked enter.
Page 2: contained an advertisement for a net age verifier for a small fee that would provide the user with a password to access "thousands of adult sites."

Tested on January 22, 2002

3. Direct URL Access

In addition to searching for sites with sexually-explicit contents through search engines, it is also possible to access adult sites directly by entering their web addresses, or URL's, into your web browser. This requires that you know the URL address. But because most URL's have similar forms, it is not hard to guess addresses correctly. In the following examples, we took sexually-oriented magazines popular enough so that their names are common knowledge and entered them in a web browser in URL form.

Simulated URL Trials

Playboy
www.playboy.com
Page 1: Homepage contained site contents with links to different features. Contained images of nude women with private areas concealed. One click on image and private area is revealed. Option for free preview if not a member.
Page 2: Free preview contained multiple images of nude women.

Penthouse
www.penthouse.com
Page 1: Welcome page with link to "taste for free" or members' entrance.
Page 2: Free preview had pictures of topless women, women kissing, sexually explicit positions, links to other sites, a continuation of free tour, and advertisements for naked pictures of celebrities. No free access to hardcore pornography, however site contained several links to additional sites that had either page 1 or page 2 access to total nudity including explicit pornographic images. One of these sites had a pop up advertising how to erase the history on your computer so that your "family, boss, or computer repairman won't know what you've been looking at."

Hustler
www.hustler.com
Page 1: Almost nude women in explicit positions with no actual private areas exposed. Access to free preview for non-members. Also contained link at bottom of page that read "under 18 click here."
Page 2: Free preview tour contained images of topless women in sexually explicit positions with private areas blocked.
Page 2: Under 18 page contained a variety of links to video game magazine and tattoo magazine sites. Page also contained links to cybersitter, netnanny, surfwatch, cyberpatrol, and RASCi (Recreational Software Advisory Council.) Site also had a link to technical support for parents having technical problems blocking the site.

4. Common Words Leading To Sexually-Explicit Sites

The following common words were used as search words in search engines--mainly Altavista and Yahoo--and all came up with some links to sites with some form of sexually-explicit content, despite the fact that, on their faces, many of these words have nothing to do with sexually explicit material. This demonstrates that it is possible to find links to sexually-explicit web sites even though one may not be looking for them.

C. Aside From Filtering Software, What Prevents Access To Such Material?

Adult Verification Systems

Some web sites with sexually-explicit content go beyond merely providing a warning about the content of the site. These sites use adult verification systems. A person buys a username and password for the system by going to the adult verification system's web site and fill out a form. Once this system has verified that one is an adult, a username and password will be e-mailed to him or her.

Adult Check (www.adultcheck.com) calls itself the "largest adult verification system." Adult Check is used by about 2900 web sites. While this may be a large number of sites, it is still only a small fraction of the total number of adult web sites. Adult Check requires the following information in its application:

First Name:
Last Name:
Address:
City:
State/Province:
Zip Code:
Country:
E-mail address:

[Space]

Credit Card:
Credit Card #:
Expiration Date:
Choose a password 8 to 10 characters:
Type of Membership:
Premium--2 years $18.95
Basic--1 year $12.95
Gold--Lifetime Membership $49.95


The system has two drawbacks. First, many people are reluctant to give out the personal information required on the application despite Adult Check's claim that all information given to them is confidential and will not be distributed. Perhaps some fear that Adult Check could change its policy on the distribution of personal information the way America Online did. Secondly, Adult Check is not free and many people refuse to pay for such a service. A third, perhaps less obvious, drawback involves the secrecy of Adult Check passwords. One of the terms of agreement in the application is that you will not disclose your Adult Check I.D. to anyone. It is not clear, though, that Adult Check has the means to enforce this rule. People can easily give their usernames and passwords to friends.

Even more problematic is people posting adult verification passwords on web sites. A search in Altavista for "adult passwords" revealed many web site matches. One link followed revealed a site with usernames and passwords posted for the adult verification systems Adult Sights and Adult Pass. This site also contained an option of sending your e-mail address in and having a username and password that will work on Adult Check e-mailed to you. A note said that Adult Check changes so often that e-mailing the usernames and passwords is more efficient than posting them. In addition to usernames and passwords for adult verification systems, this site also had usernames and passwords for web sites with sexually-explicit content that require paid memberships for access.

D. Conclusion

To the first of the questions, "Is there sexually-explicit material on the Internet?"--we can answer yes. Searches in five different search engines revealed that there are many web sites that either contain or are dedicated to sexually-explicit material.

How does one access sexually-explicit material on the Internet? We showed three ways: One was through the search engine Yahoo. Another was through the search engine Altavista, which is similar to the majority of other search engines. The third way to encounter sexually-explicit material was by directly entering the URL of a sexually-explicit web site into a web browser. Playboy, Penthouse, and Hustler were given as examples of popular sexually-oriented magazines with names that could easily be converted into accurate URL's without previous knowledge of the URL.

One way to accidentally access Internet sexually-explicit material was established. This was to enter into a search engine a search word that seemingly had nothing to do with sexually-explicit material but that nonetheless matched some web sites with sexually-explicit content. While this is a concern, once someone has a moderate amount of experience with the Web, he or she does not usually stumble upon sexually-explicit sites unless the Web user goes looking for them.

What might prevent one from accessing sexually-explicit material on the Internet? Filtering software and other technological solutions, education, the presence of a parent, personal responsibility, and other alternatives will be considered later. When we consider the remaining technological option, adult verification, we saw two drawbacks: 1) reluctance or inability (on the part of children) to provide the personal information required by such a service and 2) unwillingness to pay for such a service. A larger problem is the relative ease with which one can obtain usernames and passwords from people or web sites distributing this information. Finally, these systems are used voluntarily and right now most web sites do not use them.

Many web sites post warnings informing people browsing them that the site contains adult material and that it should only be accessed if the person is of legal age. Many sites do not provide ways to verify one's age. They only require one to click on a link that declares one is of legal age. A child could easily follow the adult link. These warning do not, therefore, prevent anyone from accessing sexually-explicit material.

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