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Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

Pornhub tightened its rules around violent and underage content this week. Those changes are a good start, experts say, but they won't be sufficient to combat a growing problem of non-consensual videos.

Why it matters: The New York Times story, by Nick Kristof, reported that Pornhub's vast user-generated content library contains plenty of revenge porn and videos with underage participants. It also details the harm that being on Pornhub can cause for people whose videos were posted without their consent.

Driving the news: Pornhub this week announced a series of changes, including stepped-up moderation, temporarily limiting uploads to known content producers, and eliminating the ability to download videos.

Yes, but: "I don’t think it's going to come anywhere close to fixing the whole problem," Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network CEO Scott Berkowitz told Axios.

  • For example, he noted that verifying posters is an important step, but doesn't go far enough to ensure that everyone depicted is a willing, consensual adult.
  • "There’s been a staggering increase in the amount of child sexual abuse material that’s available," Berkowitz said, in addition to the posting of revenge porn and other videos that are posted without the consent of all participants.

PornHub also said it would increase the resources it puts toward moderation.

  • "The key question is, is [Pornhub] going to implement these changes fully?" said Yiota Souras, senior vice president and general counsel for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. "On paper, it's great. But there must be investment and follow-through."

Between the lines: There's a big difference between videos with consensual adults, often professional, enacting all manner of sex scenes and the minefield that is user-generated content. In the latter, Berkowitz says, it is impossible to know if users consented to the act shown, if users consented to broad distribution of the video, and if everyone was of age to consent.

The big picture: Pornhub's changes come at a moment when legislators and activists are looking to solve a wide range of problems online by proposing limits to the tech industry's liability protection. But that approach has had unintended consequences in the past.

  • SESTA/FOSTA, a law passed in 2018, aimed to curtail sex trafficking on line by narrowing the tech industry's liability protection, known as Section 230.
  • But the controversial law resulted in massive policing of sex-related content across online platforms, inadvertently hurting sex workers and eliminating their comparatively safe online spaces, said Kendra Albert, a clinical professor at the Cyberclinic at Harvard Law School.

Pornhub's changes came faster than legislation — just days after the New York Times report — and, while perhaps not going far enough, are more squarely aimed at problem areas.

  • The Times column's effectiveness at prompting quick change shows the power of investigative work and putting sexual assault survivors' voices first, which sways public opinion and clearly illustrates harm, said Souras.
  • But sometimes columns like Kristof's can leave sex workers and other affected groups out of the conversation, Albert said.

Of note: Part of the pressure on PornHub came from its payment processors, companies like MasterCard and Visa.

  • Sex worker advocates are concerned that if those companies withdraw completely from the porn industry, workers will end up in more dangerous situations.

Our thought bubble: Before tinkering with Section 230 again, lawmakers should look at SESTA/FOSTA's record of effectiveness as well as the collateral damage it inflicted. As the Pornhub example shows, public and media pressure might change sites' behavior faster than legislation.

What's next: A bipartisan Senate bill introduced Wednesday would allow victims of rape or sex trafficking to sue porn sites that profit from their images, an approach RAINN has endorsed.

Go deeper

Dec 18, 2020 - Podcasts

Nicholas Kristof on his Pornhub article and its aftermath

Pornhub is one of America's most-visited websites, but a recent investigation by the New York Times' Nicholas Kristof found many videos of minors and nonconsensual sexual violence. The blowback was swift, with Visa, Discover and Mastercard cutting some ties to the site, which has now removed the vast majority of its content.

Axios Re:Cap speaks with Kristof about the aftermath of his story and what comes next.

Mike Allen, author of AM
20 mins ago - Politics & Policy

Biden-Harris, Day 1: What mattered most

President Joe Biden and first lady Dr. Jill Biden arrive at the North Portico of the White House. Photo: Alex Brandon-Pool/Getty Images

The Axios experts help you sort significance from symbolism. Here are the six Day 1 actions by President Biden that matter most.

Driving the news: Today, on his first full day, Biden translates his promise of a stronger federal response to the pandemic into action — starting with 10 executive orders and other directives, Caitlin Owens writes.

Read: Pete Buttigieg's opening statement ahead of confirmation hearing

Pete Buttigieg, President Biden's nominee to be secretary of transportation, in December. Photo: Kevin Lamarque/AFP via Getty Images

Pete Buttigieg, President Biden's nominee to lead the Transportation Department, will tell senators he plans to prioritize the health and safety of public transportation systems during the pandemic — and look to infrastructure projects to rebuild the economy — according to a copy of his prepared remarks obtained by Axios.

Driving the news: Buttigieg will testify at 10 a.m. ET before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation. He is expected to face a relatively smooth confirmation process, though GOP lawmakers may press him on "green" elements of Biden's transportation proposals.

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