Engineering Ethics Blog: 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
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


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. 


Hawthorne is one of my least favorite authors, but his novel The Scarlet
, 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.


 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

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