I’ve always liked John Lennon’s 1971 anti-war song “Imagine”. A stirring melody, easy to hum. “Nothing to kill or die for…. A brotherhood of man.” Now let’s fast forward 52 years to the world of today and play Lennon’s imagine challenge. No music please.
Imagine you’re in the shower feeling completely safe. But you’re being secretly videotaped by a stranger with bad intent.
Imagine learning about the videotape only after your friends have told you that it’s been uploaded to an internet pornography site, where hundreds of thousands of voyeurs and creeps are watching it.
Imagine the videotape will likely remain on the internet somewhere forever.
Imagine your anger, rage, and humiliation.
Imagine you reach out to the website. Surely, they will pull it down once they learn it was secretly recorded by a creep and uploaded without your consent. And,
Imagine that the pornography site completely blows you off. No response.
Imagine this is not an imaginary dream but a living nightmare. Imagine it’s about you.
The Living Nightmare of the NCOSE Law Center’s Clients
As you may have guessed by now, this is not a crazy dream or a bad Netflix production. The story is quite real. It happened to nine of my clients who were members of a college girls field hockey team. They were secretly videotaped in the shower and locker-room at a place called Limestone University in Gadstone, South Carolina, where they had just competed in a match. The surreptitious videotape was in fact uploaded to the mainstream pornography websites Pornhub and Xhamster where it was disseminated online and watched by hundreds of thousands of viewers.
What happened to these nine young women is a violation of federal anti-sex trafficking law. But federal law enforcement has remained on the sideline so far. Only civil litigation can hold these bad actors accountable.
The ugly reality is that online pornography sites monetize such non-consensual videos and split the profits with the uploaders. There is no consent form required. There is no age verification. Any person with any motive can upload them and make a buck.
Yes, we have a federal lawsuit on behalf of the field hockey players against these online platforms who have profited from their abuse. The pornography platforms, Pornhub and XHamster, are some of the biggest in the world. I wish this case was an aberration, but it is not. And this is not the first time we have faced Pornhub.
We filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of all children sex trafficked on MindGeek, the parent company of Pornhub, in the Northern District of Alabama. We have two representative plaintiffs in that case. One of our clients was drugged and raped at just 15 years of age. The rapist videotaped the sexual assault and promptly uploaded it to Pornhub for profit. Another client was sex trafficked starting at 14 years old. Among other abuses, her trafficker forced her to participate in pornography videos which were later uploaded to Pornhub. Both clients are now adults but, sadly, as we know, what goes up on the internet, seems to circulate somewhere forever.
Perhaps the most disturbing part of that case is that MindGeek tried to have the case dismissed claiming it had immunity. Immunity for child sex trafficking, rape, and child sexual abuse material (CSAM, also known as “child pornography”) – which it knew its website facilitated, promoted, distributed, and profited.
How can this be you ask? The short answer is, welcome to the age of the internet, where right is wrong and wrong is right. And where, until very recently, the federal government did everything in its power to protect these platforms, granting them almost absolute immunity from any sort of meaningful liability.
Victories, Progress, and Ongoing Battles in the Lawsuits
The tide is beginning to turn however. We defeated MindGeek’s motion to dismiss, and in a landmark decision, the federal judge held that MindGeek has no immunity for child sex trafficking and child sexual abuse material, not only because they contributed to the creation of the content, but because no one, not even a website, can claim immunity for knowing possession of child sexual abuse material.
But our work is not yet done. Xvideos, now the most frequented pornography site in the world, is based in the Czech Republic and operates worldwide receiving over 3 billion visits a month. It is notorious for profiting from rape videos, including of children. We filed a lawsuit on behalf of a sex trafficking survivor whose rape and abuse was uploaded to XVideos. XVideos sought to have the case dismissed claiming the Court did not have jurisdiction, and unfortunately, the district court bought their argument. The Court dismissed the case on the thinnest of grounds, finding, in a nutshell, that because XVideos is a foreign website they cannot be held accountable in US courts. We have appealed the decision and the case is set for oral argument in the Ninth Circuit. Its unthinkable that a foreign website could use US servers, target a US audience (by far their largest audience), file lawsuits under US copyright laws in US Courts, and profit from the rape of an American children, and face no consequences here. Our legal system is better than that.
Beyond the Pornography Industry: Mainstream Tech Platforms Also Facilitate Sexual Abuse & Exploitation
This kind of sexual abuse and online exploitation is hardly limited to websites infamous for being pornography sites. On the contrary, websites such as Twitter, Reddit, Meta, Craigslist, Omegel, and other so-called mainstream sites are well known today as the marketplace to buy, sell, and trade child sexual abuse material and otherwise sex traffic children. Indeed, each of these platforms are currently defending lawsuits filed against them for allowing child sex trafficking and doing little or nothing about it.
The NCOSE Law Center represents two young men who were victimized by Twitter. When they were just 13 years old, they were groomed by a sex trafficker pretending to be a 16-year-old girl and manipulated into sending “her” explicit pictures of themselves. Later, the boys’ pictures, which was child sexual abuse material, surfaced on Twitter, where they received hundreds of thousands of views and tweets, including countless downloads. When the boys and their family contacted Twitter on Twitter’s own reporting link, Twitter responded that it had looked at the boys’ images and that the images didn’t violate their policies. Shocked, one boy responded in disbelief, asking “What do you mean you don’t see a problem? We both are minors right now and were minors at the time these videos were taken. We were both 13 years of age.” Days and thousands of viewings later, Twitter finally pulled the child sexual abuse material down after being told to do so by an official with Homeland Security. The great irony is that Twitter and these online platforms could implement AI image-based software today that would instantly recognize up to 99% of posted child sexual abuse material and block it from their sites. Cynically, one can only guess why they do not implement this available software.
Imagine… A World Free of Exploitation
Virtually all of this of course violates United States laws, the laws of every country where it happens, and numerous international conventions and treaties. Why aren’t these laws being enforced? There is a great human tragedy playing out and no amount of buck passing can explain it away. Where is the Department of Justice? Where are the law enforcement agencies in the Czech Republic and Eastern Europe? How can rape and child abuse occur before our very eyes with no consequences?
So, what would the late John Lennon want to Imagine today if he were to recompose his famous song in the year 2022? Might it be living in a world of peace where children can love and live without fear, without exploitation from pedophiles, and free from sex traffickers? I think maybe he would. That’s what I imagine.
“Imagine all the people living life in peace…. I hope someday you’ll join us and the world will be as one.” Thank you, John.