Monday, December 21, 2020

Agreeing On Evil: Sexual Exploitation and PornHub


As New York Times reporter Nicholas Kristof revealed in a Dec. 4 article, "The Children of Pornhub," the pornographic-video-sharing website Pornhub encourages the sexual exploitation of women and girls by allowing sexually explicit videos of them to be uploaded for viewing by anybody.  Many of these videos are uploaded without the participant's consent, and such actions can literally wreck lives. 


Pornhub is owned by the Canadian company MindGeek, which for protection against legal challenges in the U. S. hides behind Section 230 of the ironically-named Communications Decency Act.  That act generally exempts internet service providers from being sued about content uploaded by third parties.  But Section 230 was never intended to protect pornographers and their enablers who exploit victims of human trafficking and other vulnerable populations for profit.


A National Review report last week describes how Sens. Ben Sasse and Jeff Markley have co-sponsored a bill called the "Stop Internet Sexual Exploitation Act" which aims to enable those who find themselves unwillingly portrayed in such videos to fight back.  The bill would require pornographic websites to obtain written consent from every person portrayed in a video before it could be uploaded, and would require identity verification of the person doing the uploading.  If someone in the video still objects to its being posted, the bill creates a "private right of action" (presumably, the right to sue) agains the uploader for anyone portrayed.  Websites would be required to maintain a 24-hour hotline for removal requests and to remove any video within two hours of receiving such a request.  The Federal Trade Commission would enforce the law, and the Department of Justice would maintain a database of those who do not consent to sharing of their pornographic material online.


These days it is hard to get bipartisan agreement on what time of day it is, let alone a significant piece of legislation such as this.  But Republican Sasse and Democrat Markley have not only managed to agree on the proposed law, but are trying to attract others to their cause on both sides of the aisle.  Surely, most reasonable people can agree on the principle that an unwilling victim of sexual exploitation should be able to do something about the continual use of pornographic material in which he or she appears.


The old saying that "technology is neutral, it's only people who are good or bad" often comes up in discussions of engineering ethics.  It is at best a half-truth, in that some technological systems lend themselves much more easily to evil purposes than to good ones.  While the Internet has conferred many benefits upon modern societies, the portion of its traffic devoted to pornography (which is a considerable part of overall Internet traffic) is a bleeding sore whose negative consequences are manifold.


The tip of the evil iceberg of Internet porn is the plight of those who end up having images of themselves posted for the pleasure of anonymous eyes, against their will.  Some of these victims have lapses of judgment that they later regret.  Others are tricked into getting involved in pornography by enticing lies that involve human trafficking.  Whatever the reason, when a person decides that they no longer wish to be exploited in this way, any meaningful measure of human decency requires that the law defend that person against whatever entity is continuing to exploit their image. 


MindGeek, the corporation that operates PornHub and similar sites, is a large corporation with hundreds of millions of dollars a year in revenue.  As such, it can afford fancy lawyers and legal defenses that easily overpower the attempts of individuals to restrict the use of uploaded pornographic materials. 


The bill sponsored by Sens. Sasse and Markley would be a step toward redressing this wrong.  It is precisely targeted at the specific abuse of internet porn using images of people who object to the use of those images, and would not otherwise disturb the precedent of Section 230.  This means that it stands a better chance of passage than broader measures floated from time to time which would abolish Section 230 altogether.  No one wants to be the one who kills the Internet goose that lays golden eggs, and while opinions differ about the role that Section 230 has played in the growth of the Internet, it would be unwise at this point to undertake major tinkering with it.


On the other hand, I can't image anyone other than pornographers, their enablers, and hard-core customers being opposed to the idea that before porn is posted online for anyone to see, everyone portrayed in it should affirmatively consent to such posting, and retain the right to change their minds later.  Imagine that you participated in such a video out of poor judgment, intoxication, or coercion.  Later you regret what you've done.  But without this legislation, MindGeek can keep embarrassing images of you online for anyone to see indefinitely. 


Nathaniel Hawthorne is one of my least favorite authors, but his novel The Scarlet Letter, in which the heroine Hester Prynne is condemned to wear a red "A" for the rest of her life, created a vivid portrayal of the way a society can inflict suffering on a person long after the sinner has repented of her sin.  In allowing evil organizations such as PornHub to keep exploiting the victims of sexual exploitation indefinitely, we as a society are allowing a similar kind of torment to be visited on those who either regret their earlier involvement in pornography or had no real choice in the matter.  Hawthorne's Puritans are universally condemned by many of today's opinion-makers, but PornHub effectively follows around thousands of women with explicitly public reminders of their past indiscretions. 


With COVID-19 and all the other political shenanigans we have witnessed lately, the Stop Internet Sexual Exploitation Act may not get the attention it deserves.  But I hope that the partisan strife in Washington can die down long enough for Congress to enact, and the President to sign, this bill that every decent human being should support.


Sources:  Nicholas Kristof's article "The Children of Pornhub" appeared on Dec. 4 at  National Review's website carried the article by Alexandra DeSanctis "Senators Introduce Bipartisan Bill to Require Consent before Sharing Pornography Online" at  I also referred to the Wikipedia article on Mindgeek.

No comments:

Post a Comment