Adult content in your hand, published in The Guardian

Published in The Guardian

What are the poor dears to do? Having shelled out billions of pounds for their 3G licences, the mobile telephone operators have been desperately casting around for ways to recoup their investment.

Now it appears that help may - literally - be at hand. A new report from IT research company visiongain forecasts that profits from pornographic materials transmitted to mobile phones will reach an annual $4 billion by 2006, out of a total porn spend of $70 billion. The company points to the massive worldwide demand for porn on the Internet, estimating that 72.1% of web users look at porn sites and that the arrival of high resolution picture transmission, along with video streaming, high quality sound and graphics, will mean demand for porn via mobiles will "skyrocket".

Deals have already been struck by operators Hutchison and Virgin with Playboy to provide soft porn content for mobiles. Further link-ups are in prospect between hardcore producers and telecoms software companies. London-based One World Telecom, which provides premium-rate services, will give mobile subscribers access to adult content from Private Media Group, one of the world's most prolific producers of hardcore porn.

"We are getting an average of an offer a week from the mobile operators," says Charles Prast, chief executive officer of Private Media Group in Barcelona. "I entirely agree that the operators will recoup their investment on porn."

Yet to be resolved is the exact pricing model that will apply to adult content. The new 3G-compatible phones will give access to many Internet sites, allowing customers to subscribe to porn using a credit card as they already can through a PC. But a more likely route, according to Prast and visiongain's report, is an extension of the premium rate system currently available for everything from sports reports to Big Brother voting. Revenue would then be shared between the content providers and the mobile operators.

Prast likes this idea for various reasons: "I'd rather have the phone companies arguing with governments than us having to do it. And I'd rather have a commercial arrangement to co-brand and co-promote with a company like Vodafone. I like to work with marketing partners."

Whether Vodafone and the rest will so eagerly jump into bed with a hardcore porn merchant is less sure. None of the main players have yet committed themselves to handling porn, though Prast says that he has some agreements with UK operators which will be unveiled "well before the end of the year". The question of public acceptance has yet to be properly tested, although Prast points out that fixed-line and mobile operators already receive shared profits from premium rate sex lines. "I don't understand why we would have different rules," he says.

Visibility is one argument. Listening to a sex chat line on your phone is a private affair. Looking at pictures or videos of couples at it, doing all the many-splendoured things which Internet porn artists do, could provoke more deeply-held objections. Creating means of restricting the content to over-18s is one of the main tasks now being undertaken.

Prast believes that there are misconceptions in the UK over what content can already be seen, through various media. Owning magazines or videos depicting penetrative sex is no longer illegal. Nor is broadcasting such material on TV. It's just that no-one has yet chosen to do it.

Certain standards do apply, however, policed by ICTSIS (the Independent Committee for the Supervision of Standards of Telephone Information Services). Its spokesman confirmed that it forced a UK-based Internet porn site featuring simulated rape and actual bestiality to take its material off the web. Promoting adult materials in publications read by children or failing to display charging rates also invites the Committee's wrath.

But on the whole, ICTSIS has no problem with porn on mobile phones. "We just want to make sure people can get access to the material with the minimum difficulty," says the spokesman. Most likely, it will become ridiculously easy to access porn on your mobile, but much harder to stop it accessing you. The author of the visiongain report, Nic Byrne, dialled up a sex messaging service - purely for research, you understand - and is still, a couple of months later, receiving five or six text messages a day from the company urging him to return to chat with new girls.

Just as spam, especially porn-related, is becoming the bane of email life, mobile spam will give us all the hump (so to speak) in coming months. Mobile subscribers in Japan were recently offered refunds because their phones were constantly bleeping with unsolicited messages. This could in itself be a strong disincentive to accessing mobile porn.

Price is another. The visiongain report puts the potential cost of video-phoning, through which you could instruct a stripper to bend to your will, as high as #6 per minute, similar to the #1 per message already charged for some premium-rate text services. "There is a novelty factor," says Nic Byrne at visiongain, "which means people are willing at the moment to pay for low quality, but I think prices will come down eventually."

Technology will respond to demand, according to Stephanie Schwab, founder of wireless web portal Erotigo: "Porn will push technology in order to make it adapt to consumers' desires," she says. Certainly there are few other kinds of content (perhaps sports highlights?) where short video clips are so prized. Schwab is a rare female in a largely male business: women in general are turned on by erotic literature rather than pictures, leading to the popularity of sites such as

Ultimately, men use porn as a masturbation aid. Society has not yet grown liberal enough to accept public masturbation. If men can get cheaper, more varied porn on better quality, larger screens in their own homes or hotel rooms, why would they want to fiddle around with a mobile? We'll just have to ask all those millions of men who will be saving Vodafone's skin flicks.