By Gail Dines and David L. Levy

Pornhub has been under fire recently after Nicholas Kristof’s New York Times feature in December, The Children of Pornhub, exposed the large amount of pornographic videos on the site featuring rape, violence, and child abuse. The unwanted publicity prompted Visa and Mastercard to launch an investigation into Pornhub, and on December 10th they announced they were suspending payment services to Pornhub and its parent company, Mindgeek. Pornhub quickly responded by issuing a Commitment to Trust and Safety and removing content that was not uploaded from verified users.

We need to scrutinize Pornhub’s actions more closely before we applaud these policies. Its response is best understood as a classic corporate social responsibility (CSR) strategy designed to bolster a company’s reputation and legitimacy when threatened by regulation or slammed in the media. CSR usually takes the form of voluntary disclosure and self-regulation, along with some moves to improve compliance and prevent the most egregious abuses. Pornhub’s strategy appears to be successful in burnishing the brand and deflecting attention away from the well-documented harms of mainstream porn to performers, consumers, and women in general.

The main problem with the CSR strategy is that self-regulation in response to external pressures represents a weak form of governance that is not really accountable to the public or regulators. Companies do the minimum to “manage the stakeholders” and, most importantly for Mindgeek, to protect its mainstream business by drawing a sharp line between unacceptable illegal activities and the legal content that meets its guidelines. Advocates for CSR claim that societal and corporate interests converge in the long-run, but there is little scope for win-win solutions given the vast harms of industrial-scale porn.

We have seen the limits of CSR in other sectors where the core business is extremely harmful to human health or the planet. The tobacco companies, under considerable pressure, agreed to restrictions on advertising and purchasing age, but have invested in expanding their international markets. Fossil fuel companies have focused efforts on reducing emissions in their refining and distribution operations, but are trying to protect their core oil and gas businesses. When the product is so inherently harmful, social responsibility is a contradiction in terms.

Pornhub’s December 8th Commitment to Trust and Safety declares that “At Pornhub, nothing is more important than the safety of our community… This is why we have always been committed to eliminating illegal content, including non-consensual material and child sexual abuse material.” The statement goes on to list a number of steps to filter out illegal content from the site.

These moves are particularly cynical in light of the company’s history of fighting regulations intended to protect the health and safety of performers and prevent illegal material. Pornhub’s owner MindGeek, along with the industry-front group The Free Speech Coalition, has engaged in a multi-year struggle to overturn US Code 2257, which requires documentation of the age of performers, and it has challenged proposed regulations in California and elsewhere to protect performers’ health from sexually transmitted diseases. Pornhub went along with age verification efforts on the consumer end in the UK but simultaneously set up and promoted its own VPN site to get around these restrictions. The porn industry is also mobilizing against proposed regulations that would make social media companies more responsible — and liable — for content.

Porn is big business, and a recent investigation by the Financial Times reveals that the sector has played a key role in commercializing the internet: “Porn pioneered elements of the global online advertising industry such as targeted advertising, pay-per-click and email marketing and is today a substantial part of the internet economy.” Just as Facebook, Google and Youtube have grown by leveraging vast amounts of data, Mindgeek shapes its content based on “detailed data tracking the sexual fantasies of hundreds of millions of people”. Mindgeek is the world’s biggest porn company, according to the Financial Times report, and daily video uploads to Mindgeek’s sites are equivalent to about half of all the content available on Netflix. Yet the company has until now largely avoided the scrutiny facing the better-known tech giants.

Although Pornhub has taken down millions of videos that were not from verified users, the site still contains large quantities of videos dedicated to young-looking porn and to violent and torture-related themes. The procedure for becoming a verified user or to join the Model Program has been very simple and only requires submitting a photo with your user name and agreeing not to upload illegal material. Pornhub states that it is reviewing this process, but it is unclear how much it will be tightened up.

It is unlikely that the bar will be raised very much, as the site, like Youtube, relies largely on user-uploaded materials for content, though it does also commission production from studios. Visa has already announced that they are restoring some payment services for Mindgeek following a preliminary review. While the credit card companies are potentially a powerful lever, they are only interested in compliance to eliminate illegal materials, and would not want to lose such a large revenue stream.

The problem with the CSR strategy goes beyond the fact that it is largely a public relations exercise rather than any authentic concern for the public’s health and wellbeing. Corporations are not people and their behavior is guided by the DNA of corporate governance within the discipline of capital markets, leaving managers little discretion. We should therefore not impute companies with personal characteristics or expect them to behave ethically. However, the more important problem with the CSR strategy is that it is intended to protect the core business and bring it into the legitimate mainstream. As the research continues to pile up on the ways porn promotes violence against women and children, it is time for politicians to grow a spine and regulate this predatory industry.

Gail Dines is Professor Emerita of Wheelock College, and CEO of Culture Reframed, a non-profit dedicated to building resilience and resistance in youth to porn culture. Her most recent book is Pornland: How Porn Has Hijacked Our Sexuality.

David L. Levy is a Professor of Management at the University of Massachusetts, Boston and researches the political economy of business.

Dr. Gail Dines is Founder & President of Culture Reframed, and Professor Emerita of Sociology and Women’s Studies, Wheelock College, Boston