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May Wong: New online worry: crude clips

As if porn sites and pedophiles in chat rooms weren’t frustrating enough for parents whose children use the Internet, now online postings of amateur video featuring skin and violence are raising concerns.

The explosion in online video-sharing sites, where clips of any nature can be easily uploaded for the world to see, has become the latest challenge for parents trying to protect their children and for Web sites coping with obscene submittals.

Popular Web sites such as MySpace, YouTube, Yahoo, Google and soon also Microsoft’s MSN are featuring user-generated videos that quickly have become a phenomenal form of entertainment. YouTube, the leading video site that helped catapult the genre with its public launch in December, attracted more than 20 million visitors in May. The company says it averages 50,000 new video uploads per day.

The infectiousness of the video-sharing sites has created feverish sensations: “The Evolution of Dance,” a comedic performance of different dance styles, has amassed more than 25 million page views in two months, and the explosive backyard science experiment of mixing Mentos candies with Diet Coke has snowballed into hundreds of copycats, remixes and spin-offs.

Within minutes, an auteur’s work could be viewed by thousands. At some Web sites, videos garnering the most page views are automatically pushed to a highlighted list or “most popular” section.

But alongside those harmless videos are extremely weird antics, crude clips of bondage or masturbation and young women flaunting their bodies.

Some viewers, including Ellen Harris of Palo Alto, Calif., consider the racier posts as an outgrowth of today’s culture.

“We certainly shake our heads when we see certain stuff, but there’s stuff like that on prime-time TV as well,” said the mother of three teenagers.

Harris thinks the homemade video explosion is an exciting new form of creativity; her family has gathered to watch some online clips together. The risque byproducts have simply become another source for family discussions — alongside television and movies — on matters such as sex, violence or exploitation.

While catering to a mass audience whose entertainment tastes run the gamut, the online video Web sites are aware of the challenges they face in welcoming uncensored clips. They strive to be an open stage for budding musicians, comedians and filmmakers, but they also don’t want to drive away offended viewers or advertisers.

“We are concerned about this issue and are aware that it affects most services that make video available on the Internet,” Google stated in response to a consumer alert issued last month by the New York Consumer Protection Board.

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

The Web sites require that those uploading a video sign off on an agreement acknowledging the prohibition of obscene submittals, such as pornography or nudity. But users who click to agree to those terms can ignore it and post anyway, slipping the clips online for a while before they get pulled.

But not all flagged content gets pulled if the site’s editorial team doesn’t think it violates the user agreement.

Like MySpace, YouTube sometimes keeps the flagged material online but makes the clip accessible only to its registered users who are 18 and older. People who say they’re younger than 13 are barred from registering, though parents and industry observers all know youths could easily work around the age restrictions by logging a false birth year.

“We’re all battling the same thing, keeping this stuff off our site,” said YouTube spokeswoman Julie Supan. “But the reality is there’s a handful of people who try to take advantage of the system. And we are trying to put more controls in place.”


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