An Open Letter to Parler for Hosting Pornography in the Name of “Free Speech”
To John Matze, CEO and Co-founder; Jared Thomson, Co-founder; and Rebekah Mercer, Co-founder:
Parler is facilitating sexual exploitation by hosting degrading and abusive content. By allowing pornography, you expose users to its many proven harms and provide space that sex traffickers/pimps and pornography producers will doubtlessly use—and very likely already are—to profit from people’s pain. As the National Center on Sexual Exploitation has witnessed on other social networking and microblogging sites, including your main competitor’s, sex buyers and pedophiles will swarm to Parler to find vulnerable adults and children for sale to abuse. By opening the doors to pornography in the name of free speech, you’ve given legitimacy and provided a platform to an inherently violent, degrading, insidious industry. Parler celebrates that it is different from its competition, but in this aspect, you are sadly the same.
Parler has become host to an extensive amount of pornography and sexually graphic content, and many users have no option to avoid seeing the images and videos flooding the site. In the recent review of Parler by the Washington Post¹, the publication found Parler’s “systems and policies have given wide latitude for images of adult nudity and sexual behavior…A variety of pornography is easy to find on the site, using both search terms that are explicitly pornographic and others that are not.” Our own researchers found dozens of pornographic and sexually graphic images—including of penetration, masturbation, choking—and links to prostitution websites in less than an hour on your site.
On December 4th, a groundbreaking investigation into Pornhub by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times, Children of Pornhub² exposed to the world what survivors, law enforcement, and organizations such as ours have been warning about for years: that the current business model of many of the most popular pornography websites (such as Pornhub), as well as mainstream companies (such as Google, Facebook, and Reddit) profit from filmed rape, child sex abuse, and revenge porn being added to their platforms. They have little to no methods or incentive to verify age or consent. And even if they did, it is extremely difficult to ensure that videos and images people are viewing for their personal pleasure are truly consensual. As long as your platform continues to allow pornography and fails to remove ads for sex acts (whether recorded, live streamed, or in person) it is impossible to distinguish between those that are allegedly willingly distributing pornographic content and those whose pages are being managed by a sex trafficker or pimp.
Furthermore, we know that victims of sex trafficking³ and child sexual abuse images (i.e., child pornography)⁴ are coerced into creating livestream or webcam pornography. Traffickers and child abusers also coerce victims into making social media profiles or create imposter accounts themselves in their victims’ names to advertise exploited minors and adults. This happened on Backpage.com—the notorious classifieds ads website that was recently shut down by the US Department of Justice for knowingly facilitating sex trafficking. Based on what we know about the way the sex industry operates and used technology platforms, accounts posting and selling pornographic content, from images to videos to livestreams, are very likely flourishing on Parler as they are on similar social media sites like Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat. Parler’s refusal to moderate content in the name of free speech directly harms those being trafficked and coerced on their site.
Parler should be particularly concerned about how pornography is used to facilitate sex trafficking considering the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act passed in 2018. This legislation amended Communications Decency Act section 230 to clarify that platforms knowingly facilitating sex trafficking and prostitution are not immune from liability. Allowing pornography on your site leaves your company not only vulnerable to a detrimental public image crisis and potential lawsuits, but it also harms your goals for the platform. You want Parler to be a place for free expression, where users can feel free to speak without being censored. But how can Parler promote free expression while allowing sexual slavery advertisements?
While our researchers found plenty of pornography, what they did not easily find, was the option to “toggle a button that will restrict ‘NSFW’ content in their feed upon signing up for a profile”, as Parler’s Chief Operating Officer Jeffrey Wernick⁵ stated in his Washington Times piece published Monday, December 7. Once they were able to find it, we did note that the default was to block NSFW material and show a filter on “sensitive” content. However, that did not prevent our researchers from easily accesing pornography and there was no label or blocking in place. Our researchers also did not have to enter a birth date when creating a profile. We’re curious how the “double-filter system” that your Community Guidelines claim will ensure harmful content is not viewed by minors can function if there is no age verification?
Furthermore, Parler’s content moderation policies are not enough to stop this scourge and protect users, as Parler relies on volunteers to judge content only after users have reported it. This places the burden on users to ensure illegal activity is not happening on Parler, removing the company from any accountability regarding abuses taking place throughout the site. Mr. Wernick claimed not to know about the pornography proliferating the site, declaring that because he “doesn’t look for that content” he is absolved of knowing that it even exists. This cavalier attitude surrounding sexually explicit material is harmful and concerning. Parler has created an environment that is a magnet for pornographers and online sexual exploitation advertising prostitution and other commercial sex acts.
We ask Parler to consider reinstituting your former policy of banning pornography, and to initiate a program to sweep through images and keywords to remove accounts, live streams, and web links that include pornographic material or advertisements for pornographic material and/or prostitution, instead of relying on user reports and volunteers. At the very least, Parler should institute the following changes immediately:
- Improve your reporting system so users can specifically report accounts or posts with prostitution or pornographic materials or links, with a specification for child sex abuse material (CSAM).
- Change your sign-up system to ensure every Parler account can be linked back to a real person in the case of a sex trafficking, prostitution, or child pornography criminal investigation. As it stands now, it is easy for individuals to create anonymous accounts via anonymous emails, which are separated from the users’ identity, which impedes investigations into criminal activity.
- Require age verification upon sign-up
- Institute parental controls for minors using your platform
These are common sense improvements that Parler can take to enforce its policies against illegal content and to proactively ensure your platform is safer. As it stands now, Parler is set to become a premier place for traffickers/pimps and pornographers to find sex buyers and porn users to sexually exploit and abuse others.
Mr. Wernick emphasized it the Washington Times piece that less than 1% of the nearly 12 million Parler community members have “actively chosen to be exposed to sensitive content, reinforcing the widely held sentiments of those active within Parler’s public square: pornography is not welcome.” The vast majority of your users have made clear that pornography does not have a place on your platform. Pornography has no place on Parler. Pornography—certainly today’s pornography—has no place in a society committed to the freedom, security, and dignity of her citizens.
We encourage Parler to commit to promoting freedom from sexual exploitation on its platform, thereby distinguishing itself as a socially responsible leader among social media platforms. Given the recent new cycles and ever-increasing calls from legislators and the general public for increased accountability of technology giants and the pornography industry, a principled stand against pornography by a technology platform would be widely celebrated.
We welcome a discussion with you about any of the outlined points and are happy to offer our expertise in making your platform safer.
President and CEO
National Center on Sexual Exploitation
¹Craig Timberg, Drew Harwell, and Rachel Lerman, “Parler’s got a porn problem: Adult Businesses target pro-Trump social network,” Washington Post, 2020.
²Nicholas Kristof, “The Children of Pornhub,” New York Times, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/12/04/opinion/sunday/pornhub-rape-trafficking.html
³Sunshine de Leon, “Cyber-sex trafficking: A 21st century scourge,” 2013.
⁴Martha Mendoza and Jim Gomez, “AP Exclusive: Big child webcam sex bust reveals rising abuse,” Associated Press, 2017.
⁵Jeffrey Wernick, “Parler rebuts Post’s characterization regarding pornography,” Washington Times, 2020.