New Zealand church groups are promoting US surveillance software to their members in an effort to combat porn. Proponents say the software can help curb porn use, while critics question its risk to privacy. Katie Harris investigates.
Two years into their relationship Sarah's* partner told her he had a problem. Since leaving high school, he had battled porn overuse and, even with her help, he couldn't shake it.
"We tried lots of different methods, more accountability, blocking sites, encouraging emails through another subscription and even talking about it with older couples, but none of them were working," Sarah said. Then the pair heard about Covenant Eyes through someone at church and decided to sign up.
Covenant Eyes is an online pornography accountability service that requires users to set up an "ally", effectively someone who monitors their online activity.
Allies are sent regular reports and screenshots of what their partner or friend has been up to online, and whether they have tried to get around porn blocks or have viewed "concerning material", such as explicit images.
The service is not just for couples. It's also promoted as a family service, and posts photos with statements that "romance novels and erotica push your daughter one step closer to porn addiction".
Kiwi users spoken to by the Herald said they first heard about the site through their churches.
Covenant Eyes has been ranked among the 5000 fastest-growing companies in the US, with a revenue of $23 million last year.
Alongside a pay-for-use service, it also offers an affiliate programme, giving users a $20 commission for each person they sign up to the site (though no-one spoken to for this story was aware of the promise for payment for enrolling others).
But what does it mean to hand over your online activity to someone else?
Netsafe chief executive Martin Cocker said there were privacy implications for users of the site.
"The first thing is the site is out of New Zealand, so there's no ability to use New Zealand law if the site breaks the arrangement with you," he said.
Users were also sharing sensitive data and personal information with their allies, who could decide to share that with others.
"I wouldn't recommend it myself," Cocker said. "It seems like a risky option. You'd need a lot of trust in your ally."
James* is an ally on Covenant Eyes and said the site helped his friend view women in more than just a sexual way.
"Porn is so easily accessible, which makes the struggle even harder to battle against when addicted," he said.
James knew several people who used Covenant Eyes or similar sites, and said it had been successful in reducing their porn use.
According to the 2014 Relationships in America survey, 46 percent of American men aged between 18 and 39 viewed pornography each week, compared with 16 per cent of women in the same age bracket.
Sex Therapy New Zealand Central and Lower North Island director Mary Hodson said although some people described themselves as having a pornography addiction, she said it was more correctly understood as problematic porn use.
"There is no such thing as sexual addiction that we know of at this time; there's a huge debate raging over it."
Hodson said she didn't recommend Covenant Eyes but did use other monitoring sites for clients who had not responded well to other treatment.
She said people with porn overuse issues could develop unrealistic ideas of what sex should be like, which then played out in the bedroom: "They become so focused on the sex they aren't focused on their partner."
Catholic Church spokeswoman Dame Lyndsay Freer said the Church's position on porn was that it was sinful, a socially harmful scourge and seriously damaging to those in the industry.
She said the website may be helpful for some people but seeking professional help to understand the underlying issue would be more effective.
"To overcome it as with other addictions, addicts need to recognise and accept they have a problem, and be prepared to seek assistance to overcome it," Freer said.
New Zealand Privacy foundation secretary and University of Auckland associate law professor Gehan Gunasekara said such sites were an ethical "slippery slope".
Although Covenant Eyes and sites like it seemed to be for innocent purposes, such as curbing problematic porn use, they might also be used for more sinister reasons, Gunasekara said.
"The danger is they are putting some kind of spyware on the computer, and once its on your computer you don't know what else they're taking."
Gunasekara said even if the company was reputable, there was always a risk it could be hacked.
"It comes down to trust and family relationships. There are other ways to get trust online without resorting to spyware."
Covenant Eyes isn't the only digital monitoring service available. There are a range of sites, most notably X3 Watch and, in New Zealand, Tauranga-based Safe Surfer.
Where X3 Watch and Covenant Eyes are Christian-focused, Safe Surfer is non-religious.
Safe Surfer co-founder Rory Birkbeck said they were primarily concerned with keeping children safe online and wanted parents to discuss technology with their children.
"Privacy really starts to kick in when you talk about the screenshots that Covenant Eyes does. We are looking at how it can be done safely on the device so no traffic leaves the device, because that's the only way to guarantee privacy to the user," Birkbeck said.
He said, unlike Covenant Eyes, Safe Surfer did not store large amounts of user data or have a web browser, which meant it was not as attractive to hackers.
Social conservative group Family First has campaigned against pornography and in 2017 led a petition calling for an inquiry into porn use, Porn Inquire NZ.
Family First chief executive Bob McCoskrie said his organisation recommended both Covenant Eyes and Safe Surfer to help porn users.
"Often it's what we do in secret that concerns us most, so just knowing someone is watching can alter that behaviour," McCoskrie said.
James said it was simply about helping people "not become a slave to the internet", but, as critics point out, at what price?