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THE CUTTING EDGE | COVER STORY

Urls! Urls! Urls!

The Internet's Burgeoning Sex Industry Helped Spur Passage of Controversial Decency Law

March 17, 1997|MICHELLE V. RAFTER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Michelle V. Rafter is a contributor to The Cutting Edge. Reach her at mvrafter@deltanet.com

In many ways, Seth Warshavsky is a typical Internet publisher.

He's spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on a Web site, and even more on computer servers and high-speed phone lines to make it easy for people to log on. He subscribes to a Web audit service and pays bounties to other sites that send customers his way.

Even Warshavsky's age--23--isn't remarkable in an industry teeming with whiz kids.

But Warshavsky is anything but average. Whereas most Web publishers are still running in the red, Warshavsky claims his company, Seattle-based Internet Entertainment Group, is making a killing, registering solid profit on revenue that could top $20 million this year.

The product Warshavsky sells isn't run-of-the-mill, either. It's sex.

Internet Entertainment Group operates one of the larger sex businesses on the Internet, running at least a dozen Web sites with names like Club Love, Girls Girls Girls and Sex Fantasy that sell subscriptions, digital photos, adult videos and other merchandise. IEG is best known as one of the country's biggest proprietors of video phone sex, a kind of virtual strip show where customers pay up to $10 a minute to talk to a stripper over their computer and watch a live video feed as she or he performs.

Warshavsky is just one of a legion of porn entrepreneurs who've flocked to the Web in the last two years, creating a burgeoning online industry in the process. Today there are hundreds, if not thousands, of Web sites selling video phone sex, live chats, video feeds from strip clubs, digital images, online magazines, fan newsletters and paraphernalia.

The rapid development of this industry was a big factor in Congress' passage last year of the Communications Decency Act, which aims to sharply restrict the dissemination of "indecent" material over the Internet. The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday will hear arguments in the widely watched legal challenge to the new law, which, critics say, amounts to an unconstitutional restriction on free speech.

Whereas supporters of the act say it is necessary to keep pornography out of the hands of children, online sex entrepreneurs say they are interested in adult, paying customers--typically men 18 to 50 who are taking to online porn for the same reasons they first turned to adult videotapes and CD-ROMs: privacy and the chance to try something new.

"The issue of privacy is huge," said Alison Grippo, author of the just-published book "NetLove" (Wolff New Media).

"The online sex industry's promise is you don't have to be Pee-wee Herman . . . and we're in the age of AIDS. The Web sites are amazing safe sex," Grippo said.

Though major magazines such as Playboy, Penthouse and Hustler have a solid online presence, most adult Web sites are run by small businesses, the proverbial Internet start-ups operating out of a spare bedroom or garage. Many are offshoots of companies with ties to traditional sex businesses, including producers of adult videos, phone sex operators, strip club owners, escort services and women and men who've worked as porn stars or strippers.

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Not surprisingly, many adult Web sites are based in Southern California, long the heart of the U.S. porn business, though others hail from cities such as Seattle, Las Vegas and Chicago.

Online sex has been around since the infancy of computer bulletin boards in the early 1980s, when enterprising individuals discovered people would pay to download dirty pictures and exchange bawdy talk on electronic message boards.

With the emergence of the Internet, online porn shifted to Usenet newsgroups, which didn't charge people for swapping comments and exchanging files. Porn proliferated, giving rise to hundreds of newsgroups offering sexually explicit binary files and other erotica.

A now-infamous Time magazine cover story from July 1995 reported that researchers at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh found that an inordinately high percentage of all images downloaded from newsgroups and bulletin boards were obscene. Although the article and the methodology used by researcher Martin Rimm were subsequently discredited, the incident fed into the emerging debate over Net porn.

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Despite the controversy, the attractions of the Internet sex business are obvious: It's easy to get into, it's a proven market, and it's only going to grow as technology improves and more people get online. Overhead is minimal--mainly computer gear, programming and phone lines. Companies that offer video phone sex also pay for videoconferencing equipment, performers and office space, or contract with a service bureau such as IEG.

The payback can be phenomenal. Adult Web sites such as Cyber Erotica, IEG's Club Love, Virtual Dreams and Pleasuregirls claim to attract thousands of visitors a day, a portion of whom become paid subscribers and spend hundreds of dollars a month on video phone sex and other goods and services.

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