Visa could be liable in suit over child sexual abuse material on Pornhub, other sites


Visa will remain a defendant in a lawsuit alleging that the credit card giant, Pornhub and other MindGeek-run sites conspired in circulating child sexual abuse material, a federal judge in California ruled Friday.

The decision opens the door for the payment processing company and its leaders to be found liable.

In an application seeking to dismiss the claims, Visa said the people who posted the victims’ underage images and those who distributed and earned money from the material caused the alleged harm — not Visa. Furthermore, the company argued, it has nothing to do with the daily operations of MindGeek’s sites, of which Pornhub is the most notable.

U.S. District Judge Cormac J. Carney wrote that “Visa lent to MindGeek a much-needed tool — its payment network — with the alleged knowledge that there was a wealth of monetized child porn on MindGeek’s websites.”

In a statement to The Washington Post, Visa said it condemns sex trafficking, exploitation and child sexual abuse materials as “repugnant” to its values and purpose as a company.

“This pretrial ruling is disappointing and mischaracterizes Visa’s role and its policies and practices,” the said in a statement. “Visa will not tolerate the use of our network for illegal activity. We continue to believe that Visa is an improper defendant in this case.”

MindGeek told The Post in a statement that it is confident the court will dismiss the plaintiffs’ claims for lack of merit once it considers all the facts.

“MindGeek has zero tolerance for the posting of illegal content on its platforms, and has instituted the most comprehensive safeguards in user-generated platform history,” the company said. “Any insinuation that MindGeek does not take the elimination of illegal material seriously is categorically false.”

The company noted that it has beefed up its securities measures by banning uploads from anyone who has not submitted a government-issued ID that passes third-party verification and by implementing technology that spots videos that are in violation of its policies against nonconsensual and child sexual abuse material.

A MindGeek spokesperson noted that the case hasn’t yet been tried and that the most recent ruling isn’t one on the merits of the allegations made.

Michael Bowe, the lead attorney for the plaintiffs in the case, told The Post in an interview that MindGeek has “no credible denial.”

“They did it, got caught, can’t explain it” he said. “It’s like telling your wife the naked woman in your bed is there because she lost her earring changing sheets.”

The judge’s ruling in the civil case is a seismic decision for the companies involved, Bowe said.

“What this means is that a prosecutor could take this complaint and charge Visa the company and individuals,” he said, noting that the harm caused doesn’t have to be as direct as Visa has been arguing.

Bowe noted that his 170-page complaint filed last year on behalf of his clients who are survivors of rape, porn revenge and child trafficking took more than a year’s worth of investigating facts on how MindGeek operates. Part of the investigation included hard-to-miss, high-profile cases of abuse that were uploaded on MindGeek sites, earning a profit for the company and nabbing media attention.

“Visa likes to pretend they’re in a different universe,” he said. “Our claim alleges they were co-conspirators.”

Carney’s statement noted that Visa is not without responsibility in the case.

“It bears repeating that after the New York Times published an article specifically addressing child porn on Pornhub, Visa suspended MindGeek’s merchant privileges, and MindGeek responded by removing 80 percent of its content,” the judge said. “It does not strike the Court as fatally speculative to say that Visa — with knowledge of what was being monetized and authority to withhold the means of monetization — bears direct responsibility (along with MindGeek) for MindGeek’s monetization of child porn, and in turn the monetization of Plaintiff’s videos.”

The judge’s mention of MindGeek’s removal of content after Visa’s actions shows that the judge is examining the importance that Visa has to MindGeek, said Will Thomas, assistant professor of business law at the Stephen M. Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan.

The plaintiffs have a high bar to meet in demonstrating Visa’s role in distributing illicit material, Thomas said, but added that it is not a very hard hurdle to cross, especially given that the case has survived a motion to dismiss.

“[Surviving a motion to dismiss] doesn’t tell us how it’s going to end but it says that the case has more legs than other cases,” Thomas said.

Visa told the court that if the plaintiffs’ theory was accepted, it would “upend the financial and payment industries,” a notion the judge also waved away, saying “Visa is being kept in this case because it is alleged to have continued to recognize as a merchant an immense, well known, and highly visible business that it knew used its websites to host and monetize child porn.”

The case could have major reverberations for payment processors and how they operate as websites embroiled in unsavory allegations remain alongside shoddy content moderation to shield them from such controversy, Thomas said.

It’s also challenging to know how the court of public opinion will affect the business moves of Visa and other payment processors, he said.

“The single most valuable intangible asset of a company is their brand,” he said. “Reputation really matters. Never have we lived in a world where a consumer has such power to impact a brand.”


Source: WP