Wireless companies are under pressure to police the services they carry amid mounting concern that today's increasingly versatile cell phones can be gateways to a lot more than football highlights and pop videos.
As governments and parent groups wake up to the problems posed by an expected global boom in mobile pornography and gambling, a few operators are taking action to restrict such content to over-18s.
"We've learned from fixed-line (Internet) that if you leave it too late the genie gets out of the bottle," said Al Russell, head of content services for Vodafone UK.
Parent Vodafone Group PLC, which has operations in 26 countries, backed voluntary age checks and content filtering in Britain and is urging partners and rivals to avoid heavy-handed regulation by supporting similar moves elsewhere in the world.
Russell was speaking at the annual 3GSM World Congress on the French Riviera, which ends Thursday. This year, the four-day mobile industry gathering was abuzz with the arrival of a plethora of third-generation phones and services offering speedy connections to a widening array of multimedia content.
Alongside the handset makers displaying their "3G" handsets in Cannes, there were almost twice as many content exhibitors listed as last year — companies from Anxa Europe, an interactive software developer, to the self-explanatory XXX Providers.
Under voluntary British rules drawn up with groups including the National Family and Parenting Institute, wireless networks bar adult services to new handsets by default and lift the restrictions only after receiving proof that the user is 18 or over.
Industry initiatives are also under discussion in the United States and France, while Germany already has statutory rules and the Australian government has published a draft bill it plans to introduce in parliament.
Technical, cultural problems
Attempts to label and filter content for global consumption remain fraught with technical and civil liberties problems, as well as cultural differences. Even within the industrialized world, some countries are much less tolerant of explicit imagery than others.
Not far from the beachfront auditorium where Russell spoke, at a booth in the exhibit hall, a French company named 1633 Publishing was showing off its licensed Playboy phone content and celebrating its recent acquisition of the exclusive global rights to distribute Pamela Anderson images over mobiles.
At the next booth, Andreas Adami of Italy's Princess Productions was talking visitors through the pornographic film maker's lucrative sideline in mobile screensavers, videos and other content.
"We also have wallpapers and some spicy cartoons, even for younger people.... Bikini babes, lingerie, non-nude stuff," Adami said, holding up a demo phone. On the screen, five carefully chosen frames from one of the Milan-based company's productions ticked over in an endless loop.
Adami said there was no doubt 3G networks will be fertile ground for the porn industry as handsets with full video-streaming capability become more commonplace.
"Last year mobile sales accounted for about 20 percent of our revenue," he said. "This year it will probably be 60 percent."
Vodafone is pressing rivals in countries such as Spain and Italy to adopt filtering, said Tina Southall, the group's head of content standards.
"In Spain there's some pretty explicit content without any form of age verification," she said. "Given what's happening in other markets I don't think that's a sustainable position."
Operators seek balance
Mobile operators fear being cast as pornographers, but they also want to avoid being seen as censors by the providers of lucrative wireless services — a key business opportunity in an industry where the main source of revenues, phone calls, is afflicted by price wars.
The strict regime they accepted in Britain is the exception rather than the rule. Elsewhere, networks are overwhelmingly choosing not to bar adult services unless requested to do so by users.
Southall said Vodafone plans to use only "opt-in" filtering outside Britain, Ireland and Sweden. That means most of its handsets will have no out-of-the-box access restrictions on pornography, violent games or online casinos.
Stephen Balkam, head of the nonprofit Internet Content Rating Association, said parents often don't know how to block access to services on a child's phone, or may not even realize that inappropriate content might be accessible on the devices.
"The fear is that younger people, who tend to be the early adopters of these technologies, will gain access to content that parents aren't aware of," he said.
The ICRA, funded by the European Union, is fighting an uphill battle for filtering standards capable of screening out indecent or violent Web content. As such, the group prefers to see the stricter default-bars and age checks on mobiles.