Small-screen laws are a sticky subject

Computer pornography has become a Nineties folk devil – an invisible evil spreading through our playgrounds. But for police it is not a priority, partly because it is obviously a much less widespread problem than magazines, and also because it is hard to prosecute.

The European Leisure Software Publishers Association (ELSPA) has pointed out that, except in the case of paedophile material, penalties for offenders are more severe under the Video Recordings Act than the Obscene Publications Act. Despite the best efforts of the Criminal Justice Act last year, loopholes remain.

Under such conditions, computer porn is spreading rapidly through the grey market distribution of video quality porn images on either floppy disk or, increasingly, CD-ROM and CD-i.

At present, the growth goes largely unchallenged, since there are, at present. few effective legal constraints on distribution.

ELSPA has criticised both regulators and police for failing to address the problem. Its crime unit complains the police are unable to recognise CD-ROM which may be carrying pornography on the spare capacity, even though checks are simple.

Such is the seriousness of the problem that ELSPA last September produced its own White Paper recommending a number of measures to differentiate between legitimate commercial software publishers and pornographic ones, often illegal operators using pirate bulletin boards on the Internet.

“There are serious dangers for the future as we move towards copyright infringement on CD-ROM as opposed to floppy disk,” says ELSPA general secretary Roger Bennett.

The system works by locating the pornographic bulletin board (often through an Internet address in the back pages of computer magazines) and buying a personalised code word using credit card details. This code allows the consumer to download images onto a computer hard disk, and thence to a CD-ROM.

Under such a system, a determined trader can distribute material across any frontiers with very little control over who receives it. More violent films from the Far East have begun to filter through to the Western market, where they are repackaged and offered to the hard-core enthusiasts on bulletin boards.

At present, the market is relatively small compared with the video sector, since many Internet bulletin boards containing pornography allow people to download material free.

“There is little evidence that people are making significant sums of money,” says Tim Reeve, chairman of a British Computer Society working party on computer pornography in schools. But the existence of porn is so hard to detect that authorities foresee an inevitable growth in the commercial potential, especially with the arrival of more “interactive” moving images on CD-ROM.

It is feared that anonymity will in itself become a factor in driving demand for computer porn. Steve Gold, a journalist who has written about pornography and computers for some time, says: “It removes the shyness barrier. You no longer have to go into Boots to buy a condom and come out with a toothbrush.”

But with a worldwide market of networked computers and increasing demand from Eastern Europe, observers predict that the spread of digital porn is inevitable.

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