On December 4th, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote a powerful expose on the staggering amount of child pornography available on Pornhub. The article featured a politically sharp subtitle, “Why does Canada allow this company to profit off videos of exploitation and assault?” Within a matter of weeks, Pornhub deleted over half of its video library (more than 10 million videos deleted), while Mastercard, Visa, and Discover cut all ties.
Mr. Kristof’s reporting was hardly groundbreaking, which is not to demean its significance. When I say it wasn’t groundbreaking, I mean that very few people can credibly claim to not have known that Big Porn profits directly from exploitation. We all know that porn is linked to human trafficking (on both the supply and demand side), that sex workers are disproproriately likely to have suffered childhood trauma compared to the general population, that much of the content (particularly when packaged within the “revenge porn” genre) violates every aspect of consent as a moral and legal doctrine. And even allowing for the softcore stuff that doesn’t differ strongly from stripclub fare, can anyone really defend videos of women bound, gagged, and choked as being anything other than monetized cruelty and subjugation, as argued so fiercely by scholar Catharine MacKinnon?
Until now, the liberal establishment has largely turned a blind eye to the problem of Big Porn, dismissing critics of the industry as operating by some outdated Puritan sensibility or coding the issue as just another item on the conservative culture-war menu of faux outrages. But when someone with as saintly a reputation as Mr. Kristof writes such a scathing indictment in the paper of record, it’s hard to turn away. Pornhub certainly understands that, which is why they preemptively turned the PR crisis into an opportunity for free publicity on their reform efforts.
I’m grateful to Mr. Kristof for his column, and I think it provides a powerful reminder of what good journalism can accomplish. But in some ways, I think it’s also low-hanging fruit. Strong moral outrage against child exploitation, with a compelling human interest hook, packaged in an article that critiques a conveniently Canadian company? That seems like the kind of article that any journalist worth his or her salt should be able to write and any paper worthy of its readership should publish. I’d like to think Mr. Kristof is just warming up, getting ready to write hard-hitting pieces that hold American companies to account too, using his considerable platform to write what will likely cause a great deal more discomfort for the establishment here in the States.
I propose that Mr. Kristof begin with Apple, and by extension Nike, Coca-Cola, H&M, and all the other companies that are currently in DC lobbying against a bill that would ban imports manufactured by Chinese slave labor. The bill in question, H.R.6210 – Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, passed the House with overwhelming numbers (406-3), and if it passes the Senate, it can be signed into law.
The main text is just three paragraphs, so I’ll quote it here so you can see for yourself just what these various United States companies are paying top dollar to lobby against:
Goods manufactured or produced in Xinjiang shall not be entitled to entry into the United States unless Customs and Border Protection (1) determines that the goods were not manufactured by convict labor, forced labor, or indentured labor under penal sanctions; and (2) reports such a determination to Congress and to the public.
The President shall periodically report to Congress a list of foreign entities and individuals knowingly facilitating (1) the forced labor of Uyghurs, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, and members of other Muslim minority groups in Xinjiang; and (2) efforts to contravene U.S. laws regarding the importation of forced labor goods from Xinjiang. The President shall impose property-blocking sanctions on the listed individuals and entities and impose visa-blocking sanctions on the listed individuals.
Securities issuers required to file annual or quarterly reports with the Securities Exchange Commission shall disclose in such reports certain information related to Xinjiang, including instances where the issuer knowingly (1) engaged in activities with an entity helping to create mass surveillance systems in Xinjiang, (2) engaged in activities with an entity running or building detention facilities for Muslim minority groups in Xinjiang, or (3) conducted a transaction with any person sanctioned for the detention or abuse of Uyghurs or other Muslim minority groups in Xinjiang. After being notified of such a disclosure, the President shall determine whether to investigate if sanctions or criminal charges are warranted.”
As with the harm of porn (on both the supply and demand sides), few people in the liberal establishment are ignorant of the ties between American corporations and labor exploitation abroad. In fact, almost any high school or college economics textbook will talk about the connection between cheap labor abroad and cheap consumer prices here. Yet we shy away from talking about how deeply enmeshed our supply chains are with actual slave labor. We don’t talk about that because it’s uncomfortable, because we’re complicit, and because reform would be costly to us. Of course, none of those are particularly strong moral arguments for our silence. And again, it’s far easier to point fingers at other nations (look at the genuine evils of this Canadian company exploiting children) than to address our own grievous sins.
In 2013, Mr. Kristof wrote a column on human trafficking entitled “Slavery Isn’t a Thing of The Past.” He is absolutely right that slavery is still very much alive, and I’d love to see him write a follow-up column that exposes how companies like Apple actively increase their profit margins by knowingly using supply chains that are fully dependent on that slavery. Why am I picking on Apple, by the way, when there are other companies I could be singling out? Apple is having a particularly rough time right now, with all the looming antitrust litigation, which means they really, really don’t want to deal with another PR battle or testify in yet another congressional hearing. And I think that means we could actually have collective power to hold the company accountable, as the first in a line of dominos. As I argued in a previous piece for this publication, the only way to hold Big Tech (and really any outsized firms) accountable is to apply both political and economic heat. If we bring increasing pressure to Apple, and if it becomes clear that they are actually meaningfully vulnerable to the will of the people as is supposed to be the case in a purported democracy, I expect we might see some rapid change that parallels that of Pornhub’s response to the NYT column which in addition to the initial video purge, also includes revamping its verification process to better insure that illicit videos are not published in the first place.
So let’s imagine the following: Mr. Kristof writes a scathing indictment against Apple and its slavery-dependent supply chains, timing the publication to coincide with the Senate’s consideration of the bill against forced labor. And after documenting the various injustices, complete with some human interest reporting, Mr. Kristof then offers the following suggestion: what if on such and such a day, consumers just didn’t buy any Apple products. This should be in reach for everyone; you don’t have to give up buying the airpods and the macbooks, just wait a day or two to buy. I imagine that in the face of such an audacious campaign (perhaps one that gains momentum internationally), Apple would be scrambling to “evolve on the issue” to protect itself. And crucially, so would every other company that is currently shamelessly lobbying against the bill.
Oh, and when Mr. Kristof has finished with Apple, he can then turn to Disney. CEO Bob Iger reportedly wants to be ambassador to China, which should be no surprise given how his company worships at the altar of the Chinese market. But really, filming Mulan in the exact province where Chinese Muslims are being held in concentration camps, and then thanking the communist party in the credits? That column practically writes itself…