Dec 17, 2020 - Technology

Pornhub's video purge poses a legal riddle

Illustration of the PornHub logo with a change icon replacing the O

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

Pornhub's removal of as many as 10 million videos Monday — a content-removal earthquake on a scale the web has rarely seen before — sent tremors through a tech industry built on user-generated content.

Driving the news: Following a New York Times expose of underage and nonconsensual content on Pornhub, Mastercard and Visa stopped providing service to the site.

What's happening: Pornhub built a vast adult library by opening its platforms to uploads from anyone, but now it's removing all videos except those from verified users — commercial partners or participants in its model program.

By the numbers: On Wednesday the site reported a total of under 3 million videos — down from a pre-takedown tally of 13.5 million videos (per Motherboard).

Between the lines: Some observers saw the porn platform's new restriction as a harbinger of how the web might change if Congress, as it has threatened, removes a key liability protection for online platforms, Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.

  • Every major online platform — Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, TikTok and beyond — is built on a foundation of material posted by the public.
  • "If you wonder what the internet would be like without Section 230, Pornhub’s response to losing its payment processors offers a pretty good preview. 'Verified' content only; everything else disappears," tweeted Platformer's Casey Newton.

Yes, but: Section 230 resolved an ambiguity in the law by letting platforms moderate their content without assuming the liabilities of being a "publisher" of that material.

  • It protects platforms from civil suits but not from criminal prosecution.
  • It doesn't say anything about user verification.

Other legal experts argue that without 230, a company like Pornhub might choose to police its content as little as possible, in order to more credibly claim a role as a conduit for content belonging to others rather than a publisher.

Pornhub also faces a lawsuit involving 40 plaintiffs who say the service hosted nonconsensual videos of them that originated on the GirlsDoPorn site. GirlsDoPorn shut down after it was fined $13 million in January.

  • The new case could test whether Section 230 still applies in this situation, per ArsTechnica. A 2018 law known as SESTA/FOSTA carves out an exception in Section 230 for offenses involving sex trafficking.
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