WeeklyTech #108

Pornography, ethics, and digital governance

In last few weeks, there have been a number of developments concerning the availability of pornography on social media. OnlyFans, a social media service that caters to sex workers and profits off the promotion of pornographic material, intially announced that it would bar sexually explicity videos beginning in October which caused a massive conversation about the morality of pornography in the digital public sqaure. Bloomberg reported that the service has attracted over 130 million users and experienced rapid growth during the COVID-19 pandemic, similar to the boom that Pornhub saw during the initial lockdowns in 2020. News of this move by the popular creator service was received by many as a blow to the pornography industry—including to many sex workers who earn a living on the platform selling access to their pornographic material.

OnlyFans initially stated that this decision was due to a strategic shift in focus to a broader platform for various artists and creators, as well as due to pressures from investors and payment processors who saw financing or facilitating pornography as a potential liability and deleterious to their own public image. But due to a massive public outcry especially on social media, OnlyFans canceled their plans to ban sexually explicit content just a week later. The company announced on Twitter that it “stands for inclusion and we will continue to provide a home for all creators.” This entire episode brought to light an ongoing debate in digital governance and public policy over the ubiquity of pornography online and how society should go about navigating questions of vice, free speech, and public morality.

A story at Axios caught my eye this past week that spoke to some of these complexities as well as to some of the prevailing public opinions on the morality of online pornography. Reflecting on the OnlyFans decision to reverse their proposed ban on sexually explicit material, Felix Salmon wrote that many technology companies are beginning to act like a fourth branch of government given their immense power and control over our public discourse. But he argues that many of the content policy decisions they make seem to be going much further than the law requires in terms of the availability and distribution of pornography. 

He highlights how many of these bans on explicit content, such as porn, have moralistic underpinnings based on the fact that pornography is legal yet is “shunned by most of the business establishment.” He goes on to argue that these decisions—often based on the fact that payment processors and banks tend to shy away from financing pornography websites, especially due to the illegality of some material and the rise of sex trafficking—are contributing to a lack of US alternatives to the current mainstream pornography sites, which are often based in other countries including the London based OnlyFans. 

He also mentions some of the controversial moves by eBay and Tumblr, which each implemented strict policies against pornography. These policies seem to fly in the face of the progress of the sexual revolution that many have celebrated in recent years toward the mainstreaming of expressive individualism, LGBTQ+ rights, and the ridding of what is seen as outdated views of marriage and sexuality from our public conscience.

While there is much more to be said about these type of decisions, including the wisdom of banning pornography and objectionable content online, one of the slight ironies of our secular age is how some will celebrate the technology industry making moral judgments in certain arenas—including the celebration of LGBTQ inclusion or the ever expanding definition of hate speech that tends to describe historic Christian teaching on sexuality as unacceptable for public debate—but these same groups will chastise the industry for making other policies on moral grounds, including decisions to limit or ban pornography on social media platforms. Concerning the latter, they argue that these technology companies and the business industry itself need to shed these outdated and moralistic attitudes since we shouldn’t be legislating or designing content policies on moral grounds. 

It is increasingly common in our society to think that we shouldn’t legislate morality, but this misses out on the fact that all laws and even digital governance policies are making inherently moral statements of what is to be promoted or celebrated in our society. They each cast a vision of the common good and put forth a version of the good life, which is a central facet of ethics and morality. While pornography is a currently legal in the eyes of the state and an extremely lucrative business, these companies might unknowingly be acknowledging how dehumanizing this industry is for all involved and how pornography doesn’t actually build a better society but rather tears it down. Either by giving into the public pressures to keep this material off their platforms or recognizing the ways in which being associated with this material will reflect on their brands, decisions to preclude this material from their platforms are ultimately serving a higher good and purpose in our society. 

As legal scholar Robert P. George said in Making Men Moral: Civil Liberties and Public Morality, if society’s “goal is to encourage true moral goodness, and not merely the outward behavior that mimics true virtue, [then we] will therefore seek to secure and maintain a moral ecology that is inhospitable not only to such vices…as pornography…but also to the vices of moral infantilism, conformism, servility, mindless obedience to authority, and hypocrisy” (42). In the digital age where technology companies hold such immense power over our public discourse, each of their content moderation policies are putting forth a vision of the good for our society and it is incumbent on all of us to be involved in these debates. While these companies have every right to ban or suppress pornography on their platforms, it should be noted that this is not an easy decision for many of them to make given the financial incentives and public pressure. But our society is better for it as it protects the vulnerable and innocent among us while also upholding public virtue and the centrality of the family.

This entire situation and debate over moralistic attitudes in our public discourse is yet another reminder of the moral incongruence of expressive individualism and how much of our modern public ethic based in the pursuit of vice is simply untenable. When you base public morality off of carnal desire rather than transcendent principles, you will be left with a system that is not only unable to stand under its own weight but also one that will not produce the type of virtue desired for society. While there may be legitimate debate within the Christian community over the wisdom of government bans, private companies choosing to exclude this content from their platforms is a clear win for public morality and the common good.

The Rundown

Conservative trust in media has cratered – Sara Fischer | Axios

Prior to the Trump administration, both parties had a great deal of trust in the national media, according to Pew. But while Democrats’ trust in the national, local and social media continues to hold steady, Republicans’ trust in those same institutions has sharply declined.

The Fight to Define When AI Is ‘High Risk’ – Khari Johnson | WIRED

The European Evangelical Alliance believes all forms of AI with the potential to harm people should be evaluated, and AI with the power to harm the environment should be labeled high risk, as should AI for transhumanism, the alteration of people with tech like computers or machinery.

The Texas abortion ban could force tech to snitch on users – Issie Lapowsky | Protocol

With the Supreme Court deciding not to block Texas’ effective ban on abortion this week, fears have been rightly focused on the people in Texas who will be almost entirely barred from receiving an abortion in the state and the providers who will face grave legal consequences for continuing to provide services there.

The anti-porn conspiracy – Felix Salmon | Axios

Pornography and the production of sexually explicit material is entirely legal as far as the government is concerned — but it’s also shunned by almost all of the business establishment. That makes a huge difference for its practitioners.

Apple Delays Plan to Scan iPhones for Child Sex Abuse Images – Associated Press | TIME

Apple said Friday it’s delaying its plan to scan U.S. iPhones for images of child sexual abuse, saying it needs more time to refine the system before releasing it.