WORLD: Porn from video-sharing

Images of nudity and violence invade children's websites

Straits Times
Wednesday, July 12, 2006

San Jose, California --- Popular video-sharing websites that are supposedly safe for children are themselves the source of nudity and violence, say parents.

Such websites are meant to protect children in gated online communities, where all participants are screened, but parents say that scenes that make them blush are appearing.

The user-generated videos have become a phenomenal form of entertainment and appear on the websites of MySpace, YouTube, Yahoo, Google and, soon, also Microsoft Corp's MSN.

YouTube, the leading video site that helped catapult the genre with a public launch last December, attracted more than 20 million visitors in May this year. The company says it averages 50,000 new video uploads per day.

It all began several years ago with Napster, whose users shared online files, especially on music. An explosion of amateur online music-sharing took place -- and the trend spread to video-sharing.

The latest concern among parents is in contrast to the usual worry about pornography sites and paedophiles in chatrooms.

Ms Carol Kiesman, from the town of Houlton in Maine, enrolled her daughter in a cyberspace club called "Zoey's Room," so that the 14-year-old could chat away online with other girls in a gated community.

But Ms Kiesman said she cringed when she saw her daughter, her 10-year-old son and other fourth-grade students encounter homemade videos online that included nudity and cruelty to animals.

"What you view as entertainment as an adult shouldn't be entertainment for 13-year-olds," she said.

The infectiousness of the video-sharing sites -- users can quickly e-mail friends and family to alert them to favourite videos - has created feverish sensations.

One is the uncanny star of The Evolution Of Dance, a comedic performance of different dance styles, which has amassed more than 25 million page views in two months to become the all-time most viewed video on YouTube.

And alongside the cute animal tricks, comic sports bloopers and corny lip-synching sessions are extremely weird antics and crude clips of bondage or masturbation.

To raise parents' awareness, the New York State Consumer Protection Board last month issued a consumer alert and pushed Google to do more to protect children.

The video websites are aware of the challenges they face. While they strive to be an open stage for budding musicians, comedians and filmmakers, they also do not want to drive away offended viewers or advertisers.

One dilemma is that while some videos could be considered inappropriate for underage viewers, they do not necessarily amount to pornographic or obscene material, which is denounced on YouTube, MySpace, Yahoo and Google.

The websites require that those uploading a video sign off on an agreement acknowledging the prohibition of obscene material. But users who click to agree can slip the clips online for a while before they get pulled.

Top websites all rely on viewers to alert them to objectionable clips, a form of community policing that has been used for years by auctioneer eBay and classified ads provider Craigslist.

YouTube spokesman Julie Supan said "the really objectionable material gets flagged very quickly" -- and is pulled from the site usually within 15 minutes.

But not all flagged content gets pulled if the site's editorial team does not think it violates the user agreement.

While Yahoo, like its video-sharing rivals, does not pre-screen every uploaded video, any clips that get onto its featured pages must first pass muster with the company's editors, said Mr Jason Zajac of Yahoo.

Still, Mr Zajac acknowledges the system is not perfect. Yahoo is looking into advanced image-recognition technologies that could look for something such as a certain percentage of skin tone in any one image.

And Google Video said it has added more screening methods for videos that appear on its "Top 100" and popular sections.

It is also considering a "safe search" feature similar to Yahoo's, among other improvements.