Software Musings

There’s a lot of calls for it

Posted on: 22/02/2007

That I didn’t know about Telus’ (a North American telecommunications company (think of an expensive Skype)) pornography service until it was cancelled yesterday does not stop me wanting to comment on it. Apparently some cellular telephones (“mobile telephones” in the UK) have screens that allow the subscriber to access the Internet. And apparently further, Telus noticed that a substantial number of the web pages being visited were ones presenting pornographic material.

One of the major challenges facing all telecommunications companies at the moment is the concept of the “dumb network“: the idea that the intelligence (and therefore value) in a network should be at the edge, the core simply acting as an interconnexion of fat pipes. This concept reduces telecommunications companies to the rôle of low-value plumbing suppliers. When a network provider such as Telus sees high value (if not high quality) information passing over its network it reasonably wants a piece of the pie. And so it started a pornography business, providing soft-porn pictures to subscribers for $3 per picture or $4 per video.

There is, of course, nothing new here. Back in the 1980s the Swiss Telephone authorities started a voice-only, obscene ‘phone-call service. At the time Keith Waterhouse wrote a wonderful article purporting to be the guide for this service, from which I stole the title of this blog entry. This contains detailed instructions (remember, children, that in those days one really “dialled” a telephone number):

To dial the Obscene Calls Service: Lift the receiver. Take a deep breath or series of deep breaths to control your pulse rate, and dial the correct number with your finger. If your hands are shaking, use a pencil. Do not use anything else as this may upset the delicate mechanism of your apparatus.

….

Heavy Breathing: Some pests wish to make breathing noises instead of articulating their hopes and dreams in four-letter words. You would be helping the Obscene Calls Service run more efficiently if, instead of wasting the operator’s time by breathing at her, you would ask—in an audible whisper—for the Heavy Breathing Apparatus. She will then connect you with an answering-machine which will record your breathing.

So the idea is not new but Telus’ service has been stopped. Primarily I understand from today’s Globe and Mail (a Canadian newspaper that provides Toronto local news to the whole nation) because objections to the service were raised by bodies as august as the Roman Catholic Church, an organisation that bases its principles on a selection of ancient texts written over a 1500-year period in 3 languages by 40 authors living in 10 different countries. If you’re not familiar with the institution, A C Grayling‘s recent article gives a resonably precise summary.

Apparently, according to these ancient texts, it is perfectly OK for a telecommunications company to provide access to pornography as long as it, itself, does not make money from it. Russell Smith wrote an excellent column in today’s Globe and Mail pointing out some of the hypocracy behind this. One has to pay money to see the article unless, as I did, one has lunch in a café which provides free paper copies of the Globe and Mail. Smith speculates about a definition of “pornography” and wonders how much technology has been stimulated (if that is the right word) by pornography. A lot more, I think, than he gives credit for.

So, Telus is to be denied the opportunity to take money from those deluded men and women who think seeing pictures of naked people on the tiny and grainy screens of a telephone is worth paying money for. Very odd.

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Disclaimer

The author of this blog used to be an employee of Nortel. Even when he worked for Nortel the views expressed in the blog did not represent the views of Nortel. Now that he has left, the chances are even smaller that his views match those of Nortel.
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