At the adult entertainment industry's equivalent of the Oscars in Las Vegas this month, comedian-host Greg Fitzsimmons zeroed in on the entrenched relationship between the Internet and pornography.
"The Internet was completely funded by porn," he said from the stage of the 23rd annual AVN Awards show. And if it wasn't for the Internet, he added, "you guys would be completely out of business." The audience, packed with porn actors and adult entertainment moguls like Jenna Jameson and Larry Flynt, roared with laughter.
This week, the Justice Department said it subpoenaed four major Internet companies in an effort to crack down on children's access to porn. The government asked Mountain View, Calif.-based Google to turn over every query typed into its popular search engine over the course of one week. Google has said it will resist the demand.
The standoff has resonated in the online world not only because of its privacy implications, but because it goes to the heart of what has spurred the Internet to such prodigious growth. Online pornography, a $2.5 billion business and growing rapidly, pioneered such now-commonplace practices as streaming video, trading files and making online purchases. By comparison, sales of music downloads totaled $1.1 billion last year.
It's an old joke that every new technology is driven by porn: A big attraction for digital cameras, some hold, was the ability to take bedroom photos without having to take film to the snickering teenagers at the corner photo shop. And a force behind the rapid spread of VCR and, later, DVD sales was the ability to watch blue movies without being seen at a theater.
More recently, when Apple announced an iPod with video playback capabilities, there was a stampede among adult entertainment companies to announce that they were making video programming available in the player's format. Mobile porn is already such a booming business that it has its own trade show, the Mobile Adult Content Congress, which will take place in Miami next week. Scheduled speakers include representatives from Virgin Mobile UK and Vodafone, as well as porn actor Ron Jeremy.
"Of course pornography has played a key role in the Web," said Paul Saffo, an analyst with Silicon Valley think tank Institute for the Future. Explicit images have been key in the advent of many technologies, he said. "Porn is to new media formats what acne is to teenagers," he said. "It's just part of the process of growing up."
Murky industry to track
Pornography is a murky industry to track. A quick search on the term "porn" turned up 41.2 million hits on Google yesterday, compared with 194 million for "iPod" -- and 551 million for the word "blog."
How many adult-oriented sites are on the World Wide Web depends a lot on whom you ask. Local porn historian Ralph Whittington, a former curator at the Library of Congress who built a museum-quality personal collection of X-rated magazines and videos, said he believes there are about 200,000 pornographic sites on the Web. On the other hand, the Web site Internet Filter Review said it calculates that there are 4.2 million pornographic sites online, based on its own research.
It's more difficult still to track how many mainstream companies derive revenue from the adult entertainment industry, from search engines such as Google to video streaming providers such as RealNetworks Inc.
Mainstream companies almost never specify how much money they earn from the skin trade. "They don't like to talk about it," said Sasa Zorovic, an analyst for Oppenheimer & Co. "It's a huge, huge market. Yet no one will say a word about it."
Rob Enderle, a tech industry analyst, said that technology and pornography have an interdependent relationship that tech pundits don't often acknowledge.
"So much of the technology that we're using now for less risque purposes had its origins in porn," said Enderle, who pointed to online "streaming video" as one major example of a technology that was driven by porn in its early days.
For example, while Hollywood is still struggling with how best to put its movies online, entire porn empires have been built by production companies selling streaming-video programs on the Internet. Naughty America, one such company, has been in the business for five years but only last year decided to make some of its programming available on DVD.
The porn industry faces at least as much online piracy as Hollywood, said Dusty Lillo, a spokesman for the company. But for companies like Naughty America, pirated half-hour movies mean more viewers -- and more viewers means more potential customers. It's a dynamic that doesn't work as well for a Hollywood studio that may have its fortunes for the year tied up in one or two $100 million blockbuster films.
While attending a recent adult entertainment trade show in Las Vegas, Wired.com sex columnist Regina Lynn said she saw other emerging technologies that will likely be adopted by the porn industry before going mainstream -- for example, a start-up company called Mobile Streaming Solutions working to make live video chat possible on cell phones.
"They were so cute," Lynn said of the company's executives. "They were this bunch of 40-something-year-old Silicon Valley guys in business suits -- and they were so embarrassed to be there."
Staff writers Yuki Noguchi and Ben White and staff researcher Richard Drezen contributed to this report.