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XXX, on a small screen near you

Are commuters ready to rub elbows with porn-wielding cell phone customers?

Mobile
A slideshow of Playboy photos glides by, to the distinct wah-wah guitar of a 1970s porno soundtrack--all in the palm of your hand.

The scenario may not be quite what Apple Computer had in mind for its new iPod Photo music player, but it's almost sure to play out, now that Playboy Enterprises has targeted the device as a distribution channel for its soft-porn empire. This month, the publisher released iBod, a free download for iPod Photo users. The company billed it as the first wedge in a campaign to court mobile audiences, who increasingly tote photo-ready cell phones, MP3 players and other devices.

"Now you can view individual images or entire slide shows in the palm of your hand, at the tap of a button, to beautify your dull commute or just to pass the time in the lecture hall," reads a promotion for the service on Playboy's Web site.

Porn has made its way out of the back alleys and into the nation's living rooms, driving profits and a new-found sense of legitimacy for the industry--but are Americans really ready to rub elbows with porn-wielding commuters on the subway?

News.context

What's new:
Porn after the digital revolution is like sand after a day at the beach: Pretty soon you're finding it everywhere--including on the cell phone of the guy one seat over during that five-hour flight to New York.

Bottom line:
Where technology goes, porn follows and makes fat tons of cash. With mobile devices, obscenity laws, privacy and common courtesy will be tested.

More on this topic.

Past porn evolutions, such as cable TV and the Internet, offered consumers better privacy than a brown paper bag and more convenience than furtive visits to a neon-drenched XXX video store. By contrast, the latest push for mobility promises to broach potentially incendiary issues over viewing titillating content in public.

Recently, the debate over public porn has focused on proposals to limit Internet content on computers in public schools and libraries, with the latest effort recently rebuffed by the Supreme Court. Now the issue may hit a larger stage, if analyst predictions about growth in the mobile porn industry prove correct. According to IT research group Visiongain, wireless porn profits will hit $4 billion by 2006.

Much of that growth is expected to happen overseas, where third-generation, or 3G, wireless networks, which deliver high-speed Internet access, are further developed than those in the United States. Companies in America hoping to cash in on the porn trend could face additional costs, antiporn advocates said, due to the risks of a legal and social backlash.

"Many people can seem tolerant of obscenity as long as it's kept private, but they don't like it in their face," said Pat Trueman, senior legal council for the Family Research Council (FRC), a Christian lobby group that advocates stronger enforcement of obscenity laws. Trueman's name is well-known in the porn industry for the numerous prosecutions he has brought--often successfully--as the chief of the child exploitation and obscenity section at the U.S. Department of Justice under former presidents Ronald Reagan and George Herbert Walker Bush.

Trueman said FRC hopes to see more attention given to restricting obscenity as the younger President Bush goes into his second term. He added that he believes current laws barring interstate trafficking in obscene material are sufficient to put a serious crimp in emerging mobile porn services, given adequate enforcement.

In-your-face porn sightings could soon escalate, if large numbers of consumers take to smut on a variety of photo-friendly devices, from cell phones to Apple's iPod Photo music player to new portable video players such as Creative's Zen Portable Media Center.

But cell phone users are so mild-mannered...
While good manners and common sense might argue for restraint, cell phone users have not distinguished themselves for courteous and thoughtful behavior in the past.

Cell phones have left a wide trail of bruised feelings--and even plain old bruises--over tactless behavior. Such issues are likely to attract heightened attention, thanks to newly proposed rules that could allow some cell phone use on airplanes.

According to Jacqueline Whitmore, a cell phone etiquette consultant for Sprint, typical complaints include loud conversations in public spaces and phone calls at inappropriate moments, such as the middle of a performance, or even during confession in church. People will no doubt use cell phones to inappropriately access porn as well, she predicted, once it becomes easily available.

"I don't know that there's any way to control that," said Whitmore, who offers etiquette training to business executives at her Protocol School in Palm Beach, Fla. "People need to be mature and consider how other people are going react. But some people are probably going to find this entertaining and use it at the wrong time."

Although rare, incidents of unwanted porn viewing have already been registered over the use of in-car DVD players, and some state and local governments have responded with local statutes banning displays of obscene movies in automobiles.

In February, a man was arrested in Schenectady, N.Y., for publicly displaying offensive material after police saw him viewing an adult movie titled "Chocolate Foam" in his vehicle, the Associated Press reported. In July, Tennessee enacted the first state law barring the display of obscene movies from a car. In addition, the City Council in Flint, Mich., this year passed a measure that would impose a $500 fine on drivers who play pornographic movies in their cars, according to a staffer.

Apple declined to comment for this story. Playboy did not return phone calls seeking comment.

The big guns are gun-shy
Wary of potential problems, U.S. wireless carriers such as Sprint are shying away from selling adult content for now, even as they beef up their wireless Internet capabilities and expand services for delivering rich media such as video. Sprint this month agreed to a $35 billion merger with Nextel, a deal that will create the third-largest wireless carrier in the United States.

"The content standards we apply are the same as those that are used for over-the-air television broadcasts," a Sprint representative said. "We are very conscious of Sprint as a brand, and we are not looking at offering that kind (adult) of content."

"People just don't feel comfortable flipping through Playboy on the commuter train."
--Constitutional scholar
Eugene Volokh

John Walls, a spokesman for the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association, said the group is working to craft a ratings system, similar to those used for movies and video games, that would be available for wireless content. He couldn't say when that system would launch.

"We are aware of (wireless adult content) and we are certainly taking steps to address it," he said. "Content rating is a top priority for us."

Walls added that several software filters are available on the market to block inappropriate wireless content.

Legal experts said public viewing of porn on a mobile device does not raise novel issues of law.

"If someone were to flip open a magazine on a bus or an airplane, it would raise exactly the same issue," said Eugene Volokh, a constitutional scholar at UCLA who has written extensively on the First Amendment. "This is a case of exposing someone to material that they don't want to see."

No federal law bars such display, Volokh said, but some states might bar the practice, for example, under statutes meant to prevent harm to minors.

Volokh added that he believes attempts to rein in public display of porn on cell phones could run into a roadblock because the Supreme Court has never given a clear and unambiguous definition of obscenity--the standard for prurient speech that does not qualify for protection under the First Amendment and thus is most vulnerable to censorship.

"There is probably some room for regulation here," he said. "But the Supreme Court has never narrowly defined what counts as obscene."

Beyond the law, Volokh said he believes the problem of public porn on cell phones may be overstated, due to deep-seated social restraints that will make it more of a theoretical than practical concern.

"In practice, almost no one is ever arrested for this sort of thing," he said. "People just don't feel comfortable flipping through Playboy on the commuter train."

And if someone does offend? Approach someone in authority or move away, advises etiquette consultant Whitmore.

"You never know how someone is going to react," she warned. "Sometimes things can turn violent. So the moral is: Don't ever get into a confrontation, if you can help it."

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