For the longest time, the Children’s Online Protection Act, signed off by President Clinton way back in 1998, has been a contentious issue in the US. It was originally kicked out of town, well Philadelphia anyway, after a federal district court banned the enforcement of the law, and a federal appeals court agreed, as did the Supreme Court in June 2005 when the ban was upheld. However, the Supreme Court did send it back to district court as part of a fact finding mission concentrating on the effectiveness of Internet filtering.

Which is where my attention gets grabbed, as someone who not only has a book published about sex on the Internet over a decade ago now, but regularly writes about the subject for various adult publications. You see, I had always been under the impression that online sex was one of the main drivers of not only Internet popularity, but technological advance itself. The latter conviction has not been diminished by the evidence given to the federal court hearing in Philadelphia, but I must admit that my belief in just how prevalent sexually explicit material within web pages was, has been.

As part of a confidential analysis of search queries, together with a random sample of pages taken from both Google and Microsoft indices, it would seem that the number of web pages that contain sexually explicit material is, in fact, err, well 1 percent of the total actually. This analysis was meant to help build the case of US Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and the US Justice Department that criminal penalties are required if our children are to stay safe from the perceived menace of adult material on the Internet. As the American Civil Liberties Union told the Mercury News "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."

Indeed, the study by professor of statistics at the University of California-Berkeley, Philip B. Stark, revealed that just 6 percent of the total number of search queries returned a sexually explicit site, and that flying in the face of the fact that queries relating to sex remain a consistently popular factor. What’s more, the study admitted that filters did the best job of clocking this kind of content, but those that were most efficient also blocked a lot of non-explicit content and lots of explicit content was not blocked by filters.

Well, I’m glad that’s cleared up then!

Apart from shattering the myth that the web is a hive of sexual activity and going online is equivalent to walking through the red light district of any large town late at night, the study also served to remind me how the source material was collected. Remember the fuss last year when a federal court ordered Google to hand over 50,000 random web pages from its index, but sensibly did not demand the full original request to also hand over 8 weeks’ worth of search-engine query data. That is where it came from. I should also point out that Microsoft (with MSN), Yahoo and AOL were less worried about protecting user privacy as they all stumped up a week of search queries without a bug fuss. MSN also gave up 1 million web site samples for good measure.

I’m not sure which is more shocking, the lack of sex online or the ease with which Microsoft caved in to the demands to give up your search query data...