Senator Ben Sasse (R., Neb.) and Senator Jeff Merkley (D., Ore.) have introduced legislation to require websites that host pornography to establish safeguards aimed at protecting Americans from sexual exploitation.
The “Stop Internet Sexual Exploitation Act” applies to any platform that ‘‘hosts and makes available to the general public pornographic images.” It defines pornography as it is currently understood under law: “any visual depiction, including any photograph, film, video, picture, or computer or computer-generated image or picture . . . of sexually explicit conduct.”
The bill follows on the heels of recent reporting from New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, who published a feature piece two weeks ago telling the stories of children who were raped or sexually abused and had videos of that abuse uploaded to the Internet pornography site Pornhub. The website initially maintained that it was not responsible for any such content but eventually reversed course and enacted several substantial policy changes aimed at greater online safety.
According to the sponsors of this new legislation, it is in no way designed or intended to modify existing law under the Communications Decency Act, Section 230. Under the legislation, platforms hosting pornography must require users who upload videos to the site to verify their identity and to upload consent forms signed by every individual in the video.
The bill would create a private right of action against individuals who upload pornographic images without the consent of featured individuals. It also requires that platforms share information on their sites with instructions for individuals to request the removal of a video they were featured in without having consented to it being uploaded. If the bill were enacted, sites would be required to remove flagged videos in two hours or less and to staff a 24-hour hotline for removal requests. It would mandate the use of software to prevent removed videos from being re-uploaded.
Finally, the bill prohibits sites from allowing pornographic videos to be downloaded, a further safeguard against the spread of content featuring individuals who did not consent to having that material made public. Violations of the law would be enforced by the the Federal Trade Commission, and the Department of Justice would be asked to manage a database of individuals who have indicated they do not consent to sharing their pornographic material online.
“A decent society has an obligation to fight sexual exploitation and human trafficking,” Sasse said in a statement announcing the bill. Sasse has spent much of the last year urging the Department of Justice to investigate Pornhub and its parent company MindGeek for monetizing illegal content.
“For years, Pornhub and its parent company Mindgeek monetized rape, abuse, and child exploitation,” Sasse added. “While these suit-wearing traffickers got rich, their victims have lived with the pain and fear. That has to end now. Our bill is aimed squarely at the monsters who profit from rape. Washington ought to be able to come together to combat human trafficking and make this right.”
“The posting of intimate photos and videos without participants’ consent is a massive invasion of privacy that drives shame, humiliation, and potentially suicide,” Merkley said in a statement. “While some online platforms have recently announced steps to change some practices, much more needs to be done. We must ensure that not another single life of a child, man, or woman is destroyed by these sites.”