Evangelical groups are turning to artificial intelligence and machine learning technologies to help their members fight addiction to online pornography in a budding industry that one scholar calls an emerging "purity-industrial complex."
As pornography has exploded beyond just websites to apps and social media platforms such as Instagram, Snapchat, Reddit, Tumblr and others, tech companies closely affiliated with church groups are capitalizing on the fears of devout Christians that "porn is the greatest threat to Christian purity and even the moral standard of the nation," said Samuel Perry, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Oklahoma and author of "Addicted to Lust."
A recent report by the Washington-based National Center on Sexual Exploitation cited a study of university students that found that 93% of boys and 62% of girls were exposed to online pornography during their adolescence.
Another study showed that among college-going men, nearly half were exposed to pornography as early as 13 years of age. A majority, or about 61 percent, of those accessing salacious material did so using their smartphones, the center said.
"It used to be that if you wanted to access porn you had to go to a seedy movie theater or go in a trenchcoat and buy from a seedy store," Perry told CQ Roll Call. But the accessibility and anonymity of the internet has dramatically increased access to pornography and brought new fears to the devout, he said.
Covenant Eyes, based in Owosso, Mich., is one of the companies that creates and sells software filters designed to detect computer or device users accessing pornography. The company works with pastors and ministries to address pornography use among their members.
"You know that people in your ministry are watching porn, and you know that porn use hinders spiritual growth and healthy relationships," the Covenant Eyes website says, addressing itself to pastors. "But figuring out how to effectively help people overcome porn and find freedom can be overwhelming."
After buying a subscription to Covenant Eyes and installing the software on their devices, users are asked to provide an email and phone numbers for a list of friends, family or pastors, called accountability partners. If a user then accesses pornography on their laptop or smartphone, the software then would capture a screenshot, blur it and send an email to the "user's ally or allies, who they have selected to help them in their journey," says Dan Armstrong, a spokesman for the company.
The ally or allies then get what's called a "concerning screenshot" and indicate that they should review the activity, according to the company's website. "The concerning screenshot will not be immediately shown on the report so as not to immediately expose an ally (someone receiving a report) to potential pornography," the website said. But the blurring will be removed if the reviewer clicks on an inspect button, the company said.
The goal is similar to the technique used by Alcoholics Anonymous to help people overcome addiction by creating partnerships with sponsors who help newcomers stay sober.
The company has about 300,000 current users who pay on average about $15.99 a month for unlimited use across multiple devices, Armstrong said. Almost all of them are men, and about 62% of them are married, he said. That works out to annual revenue of about $57 million.
A typical user tends to be a member for about 37 months, while some keep their subscription for a lifetime to avoid falling back into old habits, he said.
Unlike older technology that relied on keyword filters to block access to websites based on words found embedded in a site's code, Covenant Eyes now uses the latest in artificial intelligence, Armstrong said.
"We've developed our own image recognition and machine learning artificial intelligence to detect pornography on a screen," Armstrong told CQ Roll Call.
The artificial intelligence-based image detection software may also aid in detecting accidental exposure to pornography, especially among young people, Armstrong said.
Not all pornography is sought or accessed through a Google search, Armstrong said.
"As it pertains to our young people, explicit content is fully accessible in many of the private social media platforms that they live on," he said, including via direct messages on Instagram that can contain unsolicited pornography or user-created content by porn performers on premium Snapchat accounts.
If the AirDrop feature on an iPhone is not disabled, for example, "a child could become the victim of 'cyberflashing' from complete strangers or peers, who use the content to mock and bully," he said. The AirDrop feature allows iPhone users in physical proximity to each other to share content on each other's phones.
Covenant Eyes is not the only company selling porn detection software. X3watch, an offshoot of a company called xxxchurch.com, is another. The company's website says its founder, Craig Gross, has been working since 2002 on software that would track, filter and report pornography to a subscriber's accountability partner. The software was intended to be free, and "pastors were ecstatic about the idea," according to the website.
The software was launched in 2004 and is currently sold at about $70 a year for an individual subscription, according to the website. No one could be reached at the company, but a chatbot on its website responding to queries said that X3watch is "actually one of the least expensive options you'll find (price wise) compared to our competitors."
The software-based filtering is just the "tip of the iceberg" when it comes to evangelical churches and affiliated groups trying to help their members step back from pornography, Perry said. "There are conferences where people are getting together, there are dozens of books that people are writing about how to break free" of pornography.
"Somewhere in there, someone is making a lot of money," Perry said. "There's a market for people who want to protect themselves from the dangers of porn, what I call the 'purity-industrial complex.'"
And yet, shifting attitudes among younger people shows a more laissez-faire approach toward pornography, Armstrong said.
About 65% of American men, or close to 100 million people, watch some pornography at least once a month, Armstrong said. But a 2016 survey by Plano, Texas-based Josh McDowell Ministry found that only about half of adults age 25 and older thought viewing pornography was wrong, Armstrong said.
Younger Americans between ages 13 and 24 said that not recycling was a worse moral offense than watching porn, the survey found.
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