- Deseret News - Friday, February 13, 2015

“We always overestimate the change that will occur in the next two years and underestimate the change that will occur in the next 10.” — Bill Gates

I write frequently about the ways that the computing revolution impacts the lives of individuals, businesses and societies. Many if not most of these impacts are positive. But one glaring ill has been amplified many-fold by technology: The widespread prevalence of pornography.

I’ve spent much of the past 10 years helping to bring high-speed broadband into the mainstream, and working to enhance digital literacy for its benefits in expanding career opportunities, in saving money online and in greater involvement in civic and social causes.

Yet I deeply empathize with those who reject the Internet outright because it makes sexually explicit images and videos far too accessible, both for adults and for children.

Those who have adopted the digital tools of modern life see many of the benefits that have occurred over the past decade:

The world is vastly smaller. Whether in facilitating job opportunities or enabling extended family connectedness through social networks, telecommunications has empowered healthy commercial and social relationships that otherwise couldn’t be maintained across physical distances.

Gatekeepers are bypassed. The crisis faced by the news business is just one of many industries transformed by disruptive innovation: Think also of the financial, travel, music and retailing businesses.

Finding everything is easier. Search engines like Google and Bing make it easy for anyone to find out anything that’s public at any given time.

Mobility puts computers constantly in our hands. Access to computers was once limited by cost and then by physical form factors like the personal computer on a desktop. Now, the awesome communications and computing capabilities of a smart phone is constantly at our sides.

All of these trends have exacerbated the ease with which truly harmful material can enter into our eyes and our minds.

While some search engine companies and Internet service providers have implemented filters and other safety tools, they haven’t done nearly enough to enable the average person to feel safe online. And even the best filters can be circumvented, putting a heavy burden on families and adolescents to be their own personal gatekeepers.

Having instant access to pornographic material magnifies its harms for women, men, children and society at large.

Harms to women. Pornography harms women in creating an undercurrent of personal danger. In depicting women as sexual objects, expectations are created that limit a woman’s freedom to act of her own accord.

Women who work in the pornography industry are also harmed. According to a recent documentary that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival last month, 40 percent of pornography includes violent and aggressive acts against women. “Even within realms of consent, there’s an awful lot of coercion that goes on,” said Mary Anne Franks, a University of Miami law professor and the tech policy director for the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative.

Harms to men. Men’s conceptions of sexuality are jeopardized by exposure to false characterizations of sexual relationships. Male viewers of pornography become degraded and emasculated.

Fight the New Drug, an up-and-coming non-profit group focusing raising awareness about the harmful effects of pornography breaks this down into three categories: “Porn changes the brain. Porn kills love. Porn warps ideas about sex.”

Harms to children and youth. The group has assembled an impressive amount of research highlighting pornography’s negative impact on families and individuals. Marriages in which one person has a problem with pornography are plagued by anxiety, secrecy and isolation. A survey of members of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers found that 62 percent of divorce attorneys said obsession with pornography had been a significant factor in divorces cases.

Describing her experience in speaking at college campuses for a magazine article, author Naomi Wolf wrote: “When I ask about loneliness, a deep, sad silence descends on audiences of young men and young women alike,” she says. “They know they are lonely together … and that [porn] is a big part of that loneliness. What they don’t know is how to get out.”

Harms to society. While technology has brought countless benefits to society, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that our interconnected networks of communication have been harmful in bringing so much pornography to the surface of our culture. As with any fighting any other sort of addiction, the first step to recovery is to admit the existence of problem that cannot be overcome alone.

Pornography is such a problem. It’s time for the innovative minds of the technology sector to begin to address a problem worsened by the very technologies they have invented.

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