Just over a year after PayPal cut off its payment services from Pornhub, the internet pornography giant, Visa and Mastercard are under pressure to follow suit. Distressing details were reported at the weekend of more cases in which content featuring children was uploaded, causing long-term damage to those involved. These are far from the first occasions on which girls and women have been humiliated on pornography websites for profit. In January, 22 women who were tricked by the GirlsDoPorn website into making pornography which was then uploaded and widely shared, were awarded $13m in damages.
While these crimes were committed in the US, girls and women in poorer countries, who are far less likely to have access to lawyers, politicians, journalists or anyone else who might possibly be able to influence these companies, are even more vulnerable. Evidence points to sexual exploitation on a vast scale. In the US, in 2018, there were 18.4m reports of child sexual abuse imagery online – up from 3,000 20 years previously.
With 3.5bn visits a month, Pornhub has more traffic than Netflix, Yahoo and Amazon. Two million people have signed a petition calling for it to be shut down. Yet despite the work undertaken by reporters and campaigners to track down some of those who have been exploited, and reveal the existence of such search terms as “young tiny teen”, the political reaction has been muted. Mindgeek, the conglomerate that owns Pornhub, is run from Montreal and headquartered in Luxembourg for tax reasons. Justin Trudeau, Canada’s prime minister, said he was “extremely concerned” following recent coverage. Yet neither he nor the EU’s leaders appear in a hurry to clamp down.
As with other forms of online activity such as hate speech, one line of defence is moderation. While Pornhub rejects the new allegations and insists it has “stringent safeguards”, its record with regard to harmful content suggests otherwise. The company must now be compelled to increase its capacity in this area, and to do so transparently. Compulsory verification of the identity of anyone generating content also makes sense, if the principle of consent and paramount importance of age verification are to be taken seriously. Recent reports of a sharp increase in online grooming and “self-generated” images of child abuse in the UK offer further proof of how urgently such changes are needed.
An “online harms” white paper was unveiled last year, but progress has stalled amid concerns over privacy and perhaps also reluctance to confront the social media companies. Where child abuse is concerned, such unwillingness is surely compounded by horror: such depravity is hard to read about, let alone view, which makes tackling it all the more challenging. Those involved require support and training. But the responsibility can no longer be ducked. Of the many flaws of the “move fast and break things” ethos of the digital innovators, the huge increase in online sexual exploitation is among the darkest.