If one percent of the web is porn, is that a lot?

One percent may sound small, but where there are billions of web pages, there are millions of porn pages

The answer to this question has apparently become relevant in a lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union against the U.S. government over the long-dormant Children's Online Protection Act.

How much porn is really out there on the Internet? The answer is that about one percent of web pages "contain sexually explicit material," according to a "confidential" analysis of Google and Microsoft search data done at the behest of the Department of Justice, which wants to reactivate the law that the ACLU successfully blocked.

But that one percent figure begs a second, apparently more significant question: Is one percent a lot -- or not?

One newspaper headline from last week proclaims: "Study finds web isn't teeming with sex." Another asserts that "99 percent of the Internet is porn free." So at least two headline writers believe that one percent is not a lot when the subject is Internet porn.

That's the ACLU's position, too. The civil liberties group argues that the study results do not bolster the government's attempt to revive the challenged law.

"One of the things we think came out of the government's study is that the chance of running into graphic content on the Web when filters are on is extremely low,'' ACLU attorney Catherine Crump told the San JoseMercury News.

Hey, I'm as glad to see that law go as the next civil libertarian, but I can't help but notice the importance of "when filters are on" in that sentence.

But back to the number: What does one percent of web pages really mean? The answer is truly a "go figure," and one would think you'd start with the total number of web pages. Good luck. You can find all kinds of guesses out there on that figure, ranging from tens of billions to hundreds of billions. Take your pick.

Whatever you choose, though, you're talking a mighty big number, a number so big that one percent of it will leave you with a mighty big number.

So the question seems a bit silly. Of course, one percent is a lot. Of course, the web is teeming with sex. There's a lot of smut on the Internet, and children, left to their own devices, will find it, and it will find children.

And it strikes me that we didn't need a taxpayer-funded study to reach any of these conclusions. Nor do they justify ham-handed legislation.

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Paul McNamara

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