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Improving the Web

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

By the turn of the century, the once-hot show "Friends" was feeling a bit tired. The characters, who once seemed so hip hanging out in their coffee shop, felt as if they were behind the times.

Sure, they still wore cutting-edge clothes and never seemed to have to work, but they lacked modern gadgets such as cell phones. So in early 2001 the writers finally broke down and forced sex-crazed character Joey to log on to the Web. “Man,” he announced, “there is a lot of porn out there!”

Indeed there was. The Web tracking company Net Ratings says that in April 2001, 22.9 million unique visitors went to porn sites. As much as 20 percent of Web traffic was to pornographic sites.

Recall that one of the hippest things in the late 1990s was the live Web cam, where people (usually young women who also didn’t seem to have a job) could broadcast images of themselves 24 hours a day. The JenniCam kicked off this trend. As Wikipedia puts it, “Anyone with Internet access could observe the often mundane events of [Jennifer] Ringley’s life. JenniCam was one of the first web sites that continuously and voluntarily surveyed a private life.” The fact that Jenni was, at least occasionally, naked seemed to attract more eyeballs to her site.

Of course, under the guise of “protecting American children,” Congress decided to get involved.

In 1998 lawmakers passed the Child Online Protection Act, which would have forced commercial Web sites to collect proof of age before allowing users to see material that was considered “harmful to minors.” The Supreme Court blocked the law in 2004 on free speech grounds.

But here’s the beauty of the Web: There was no need for lawmakers or the Justice Department to regulate it. Left to its own devices, the free market would regulate the internet.

First came filters users could install on their machines. A 2006 study commissioned by the Justice Department determined that about 1 percent of the Web sites found by search engines were “sexually explicit.”

Of these, the same study found that internet filters successfully blocked between 40 and 90 percent of explicit sites. “AOL’s Mature Teen,” to name one filter cited by the study, “blocked 91 percent of the sexually explicit Web sites in indexes maintained by Google Inc. and Microsoft Corp.’s MSN.”

Furthermore, as the Web itself matured, the percentage of pornographic sites was bound to decline as the number of search engines, news sites, commercial sites and social networking sites increased. And that’s exactly what had happened.

Bill Tancer, author of the book “Click: What Millions of People are Doing Online and Why It Matters,” told Reuters that by 2008, surfing for porn had declined by 10 percent from a decade earlier. Kids today seem more interested in hanging out. Not at the "Friends" coffee shop, of course, but at sites such as Twitter, Facebook and MySpace.

“As social networking traffic has increased, visits to porn sites have decreased,” Tancer told Reuters. “My theory is that young users spend so much time on social networks that they don’t have time to look at adult sites.”

There’s simply more quality sites on the internet these days. Users can watch live sports, post videos of their children and make free international video calls. Each year, fewer seem to be bothering to seek out porn.

And nobody can be certain what’s ahead. Trancer, the internet analyst, predicts that people will want guarantees that the information they find online is accurate. “I think we will see someone come forward and develop a new type of software that can filter for the most accurate information,” he told Reuters in 2008. “Maybe accuracy is the next thing we will all search for.”

If someone builds it, the users will come.

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