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Careful what you wish for: Pornhub’s unverified content purge hints at looming user-generated content crackdown on social media

The online porn behemoth removed millions of videos last week after payment processors MasterCard and Visa dropped it as a client, declaring that only verified users would be permitted to upload footage going forward. Pornhub hinted in a press release accompanying the move that “platforms like Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, YouTube, Snapchat and Twitter” may soon be expected to similarly verify all users – a requirement which would seriously curtail freedom of speech on platforms that are already infected with censorship.

Pornhub has long addressed accusations it provides a haven for child abusers and other sexual predators by pointing the finger at sites like Facebook, which reported 84 million examples of child sexual abuse content over the last three years compared to “only” 118 for Pornhub during that same period. Sex workers, too, defend the site, pointing out that the Visa and MasterCard payment cutoffs only prevent them from making an honest living while doing nothing to stop the upload of abusive content.

However, porn performers seem to be on board with the demand for verification – an ominous step that could spill over into Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, an outcome Pornhub seems to desire. 

Requiring all content uploaders to be verified would deliver a knockout blow to the remaining independent content creators who’ve survived the myriad ‘wrongthink’ purges of YouTube, Twitter and Facebook. The social media giants have historically been loath to verify those whose content does not conform to an ever-narrowing mainstream narrative – one can only imagine the tedium of an all-blue-check Twitter – and at first glance Pornhub might seem to have little in common with the major social networks.

However, both rely on users to upload content, and both are (theoretically) beneficiaries of Section 230, the controversial liability protection measure that President Donald Trump and numerous members of Congress have targeted for demolition. Both are also being targeted under the auspices of protecting children from sexual abuse, a strategy whose final aim – censorship and an end to civilian use of encryption technology – has little if anything to do with protecting kids and everything to do with squashing dissent.

Among the changes Pornhub introduced last week is the rollout of a Trusted Flagger Program, a panel of 40 “non-profit internet and child safety organizations” whose word will be law going forward. Only a single trusted flagger need tag a piece of content and it is “immediately disabled,” the platform explained. 

That policy includes strong echoes of the EARN IT Act, a monstrous bill that would kill off encryption and online privacy as we know it, supposedly because the technology is used by child predators. Both privacy advocates and anti-trafficking groups have argued that the draconian legislation would have little if any impact on trafficked children, suggesting the real goal is to torpedo Section 230 while restricting civilian use of encryption. 

Like Pornhub’s “trusted flaggers,” under EARN IT, an unelected 19-member group effectively controlled by the attorney general would be able to foist burdensome content restrictions on social media platforms, forcing preemptive censorship of certain topics or terms in exchange for the companies “earning” the right to continue to be shielded by Section 230. Companies that refuse to submit to those structures could be sued out of existence, the liability shield they previously enjoyed having been withheld due to their failure to obey. 

Measures similar to EARN IT are already underway in Europe, where companies must remove so-called “hate speech” in 24 hours or face steep fines and other legal punishments. Never mind that one person’s hate speech is another’s principled dissent – the absence of a legal liability shield incentivizes platforms to preemptively censor all wrongthink, lest they run afoul of a given country’s rules. France has taken things even further, calling for those “guilty” of hate speech to be barred from social media for life. Should the US follow Europe down this path, Americans will look back on 2020’s censor-happy social media climate with wistful nostalgia. 

American politicians on both sides of the aisle are clamoring for Section 230 to be revised or scrapped altogether. Certainly, tech platforms have abused it, hiding behind its protections while acting as ideologically-motivated censors. But if the effort to force social media to behave is not handled carefully, the internet as we know it will be destroyed.

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The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.

© 2020, paradox. All rights reserved.

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