CupHub: ‘Free porn’ tube sites are inherently exploitative, obvs

Image by the brilliant Stuart F Taylor

Imagine that alongside independent cafés, and large chains like Starbucks and Pret, there’s an even bigger coffee company: CupHub, where you can get your caffeine fix for free. The only catch is that instead of having a dedicated team of baristas, paid by the company, basically anyone can pop behind the counter and make your coffee for you. Instead of buying coffee to serve you, CupHub relies on people dumping coffee at the entrance to their shops. Sometimes this coffee is legit, other times it’s stolen or tainted in some way. CupHub does its best to try and make sure it isn’t, but inevitably some bad coffee and bad people will slip through the net. Still: free coffee! Woo!

You might feel a tiny bit uncomfortable about where your coffee comes from, because it’s not always clear when you go to CupHub. But whatevs: free coffee!

Now imagine that some huge scandal has erupted around CupHub, which highlights how bizarre their ‘anyone can serve’ system truly is. A few people found their coffee contained poison. Others learned that the person who’d made it was being blackmailed into doing so. The full ramifications of ‘anyone can make your coffee, we at CupHub are just providing a platform for coffee service’ start to drip into the public consciousness. You realise, to your horror, that if ‘anyone can make your cup of coffee’, that ‘anyone’ could include people who are being exploited, or those who mean serious harm. CupHub assures you that it does its best to stop these people from making coffee – as and when you, the customers, alert them of course. They couldn’t possibly run any kind of pre-service checks, because they are wildly popular so they don’t have capacity to do that.

CupHub have built a model which relies on people serving coffee for free, and they’re so popular that consumers now believe that coffee should always be free. So when it turns out that terrible/exploitative people are trying to serve coffee, CupHub throw up their hands and say ‘we’re doing our best, we’ve got systems to try and prevent this! More coffee, anyone?’ And a bunch of people get annoyed that CupHub isn’t being held accountable. They’re now only dimly aware that coffee can be served in other ways, so when the CupHub scandal comes up in conversation they start arguing that coffee itself is inherently exploitative, and we should all stop drinking it anyway.

You, a coffee lover, might get a bit annoyed at this point. You might look at the other coffee chains and say ‘hey CupHub! I found a way you can stop this harm! How about you just adopt a model which means you as a company vet the people who serve coffee for you, pay for the coffee itself, and take responsibility for the product you are releasing into the world?’

Weirdly, loads of people you know still drink coffee from fucking CupHub, because it’s free and so paying for proper coffee feels like a huge step now. You take them gently to one side and point out that it is literally impossible for someone to give you coffee for free without exploiting someone somewhere down the line. You ask them to pay for their coffee. You explain that the reason coffee from elsewhere costs money is because you’re paying for the company to pay their staff, and look after their welfare – to a bare minimum if it’s the big chains, a bit more significantly if they’re an independent chain with a code of ethics.

So you tell everyone you know about how CupHub sucks, and its model is entirely broken, and they’re like ‘ah but coffee is inherently exploitative, so what can ya do?’

Then they write a letter to credit card companies, demanding they stop working with any and all coffee companies.

And you smash your head into the nearest brick wall, because right now that feels more productive.

This ‘coffee is inherently exploitative’ idea is not just an overreaction that can be corrected, it’s a fundamental misunderstanding of the problem. CupHub is now so popular that people have forgotten there are other options at all. Other exploitative coffee companies flood the high street too, following the exact same model as CupHub. You can now visit RedCup or XCup for a free caffeine fix in the morning, again bypassing any of the companies that charge fair prices for their product. Consumers are so used to getting free coffee that the very idea of paying for it seems ridiculous. Meanwhile battle lines have been drawn: you’re either pro-coffee (in which case you must accept that CupHub’s exploitation is here to stay) or you’re anti-coffee (in which case you surely want every coffee shop, including the independents, shut down).

This isn’t just a bad idea because no one gets coffee (although if you do enjoy coffee expect plenty of people to paint your position in such simplistic terms), it’s a bad idea because being ‘anti-coffee’ in a world where CupHub has so much power means the first casualties of your crusade will always be the independent chains. CupHub won’t go out of business any time soon, because they’re the biggest player in a market where there’s huge demand. They are such a dominant force that they’ve successfully redefined how we think ‘coffee’ should be served. So when well-meaning friends manage to successfully stop credit card providers working with coffee companies, the ones hardest hit are those who were charging for coffee in the first place. You know, the ones who generally paid their staff and tried to prevent you from sipping on poisoned coffee. CupHub will make most of its money the way it always did – by grabbing customer details when they walk in the door, and advertising to them while they’re waiting for their brew. Large chains might limp on, surviving because they have partnered with CupHub to take advantage of its massive audience base, and independent coffee shops – which would rather close down than buy into a model that they know to be wildly unethical – shut their doors and disappear.

If you want to tackle CupHub’s exploitation, you don’t just ban coffee: you ask yourself why CupHub has these scandals where many independent chains with smaller budgets and less power do not. Hopefully you conclude that when it comes to serving coffee, you probably need to have more control than simply ‘whatever, we’ll let anyone do it, the important thing is to keep providing loads of free coffee!’ After all, in the small chains where paid staff make the coffee, and paid staff serve the coffee, all those paid staff are vetted and trained by the company itself, and the coffee itself is sourced in transparent and ethical ways, they seem to be doing OK in terms of not accidentally serving anyone poisoned coffee. If problems were to arise under this model, the company has enough control over its product and processes that it can simply change them to ensure it doesn’t happen again.

But CupHub? The problem is not with their product or processes but their entire business model. CupHub can’t vet staff before they serve coffee – that’s just not how it works! So they keep plugging away, saying they’ll respond more quickly when problems arise, and they’ll put in security systems and post-drink checks to try and tackle these serious problems.

They can try their best, but it won’t solve the problems while the model remains the same. With the best will in the world, if you let anyone make coffee, you don’t have control of the coffee.

 

 

Abuse content (i.e. videos of underage people, revenge porn, etc) is inevitable on a ‘free porn’ platform because ‘free porn’ platforms which allow user uploads cannot adequately pre-moderate every video which goes up. A tube site (of which PornHub is far from the only one, incidentally) can put in all the post-upload checks they like – the ability to report scenes and request that particular videos be taken down, ‘content scanning’ technology, whatever – but the fact remains that any website which allows user uploads without pre-publishing checks will be open to abuse content.

In other words: if you let anyone make coffee, you do not have control of the coffee. And all the time we waste debating whether coffee is exploitative is time we could have spent tackling the urgent problem: that some of this coffee is poisoned.

 

8 Comments

  • Neil says:

    What a superbly written post. I love the way you’ve drawn the analogy here.

    I wonder about the implications of your “all the time we waste debating whether coffee is exploitative is time we could have spent tackling the urgent problem: that some of this coffee is poisoned” comment.

    Because that’s not an easy problem to tackle. Not easy at all.

    Should all coffee shops require a licence, so that only government-approved coffee shops can trade? Those who don’t meet the requirements cannot operate. Perhaps not a great example, since there is a licensing framework for food and drink establishments. But should that be extended to the web — that you cannot run a site unless you’ve got a government licence to do so, such that ISPs will only carry traffic to sites which have a current licence? Would a sex blog, let alone a porn site, even be on the list of sites capable of receiving a licence?

    Or should a site be able to operate, but only if it does “pre-publication checks”?

    This has, of course, the massive scaleability challenge for popular sites, which you note. You published news of this blogpost via Twitter, a site which does not have pre-publication checks — how long would you be prepared to wait for the checks to take place? But scaleability is a secondary issue though.

    What are the checks that they must undertake?

    Are they trying to identify whether the clip infringes someone’s copyright (i.e. the “upload filter” debate we’ve been having in Europe?) If so, is the onus on each rightsholder to supply the hashes of its content, to allow an automated matching to take place? And what happens when the content is being used in a lawful manner, but is still a copy (e.g. under the right to criticism) — automatic filters are unlikely to cope with that kind of nuance any time soon.

    Your blog sits behind Cloudflare. Should Cloudflare — a web proxying system — be responsible for checking the content on all the sites that it proxies, to make sure it it not proxying anything infringing or unlawful?

    What about your hosting provider? Should they too be subject to an obligation to pre-check everything that you upload to their servers — to check that you have the right licensing for your images, for example, or that your link to the Guardian is not an infringing communication to the public of whatever content is on that page?

    Is the obligation to carry out a check to ensure that the participants are consenting throughout? I’m not sure how anyone other than the original producer would go about doing that. Would a promise from the uploader that they were the original producer, and that they validated each performer’s consent, be sufficient? A tickbox isn’t much of a check…

    So do they need to contact each performer, and check? That seems challenging. Unless, perhaps, they developed technology to determine someone’s real world identity from their depiction on screen. No way that would be abused, of course — it would certainly never be sold to men wanting to check if a potential girlfriend, co-worker, or someone they want to harass has ever appeared in porn…

    Or a should a site simply be liable for everything distributed through it, wherever it originates? A site can do pre-publication checks if they want, or else refuse to accept third party content. Or just take the risk. Since the lack of pre-publishing checks is likely to mean that some people do upload unwanted, even unlawful, content, that’s going to be a substantial risk, if you want a site which operates for more than a few days. So it’s either pre-publication checks for every single possible liability — and which sites could afford the lawyer time, or the automated checks, to do that? — or else no third party content.

    Would it be a major loss if the answer to this was “well, if they can’t do what is necessary, they cannot operate”? Would losing CupHub really be a bad thing? Perhaps not. But what about Twitter. And Facebook. And Dropbox. And online messaging services (which, by their very function, allow user uploads without pre-publishing checks)? And any blog with a comments section (could you validate that nothing in this comment infringes copyright?)? And so on. Is a non-interactive web really the web we want, because some people abuse their ability to upload?

    This is not to say that we should sit back and do nothing, but simply that a call to arms to “do something” — especially upload filtering — necessitates some very careful, practical thinking, as to what that “something” could, feasibly, be.

    Of course, one option might be to patronise sites that choose to operate as ethically as they can, and which retain control over the content they distribute. But then if we all did that in the first place, we wouldn’t be in this mess…

    • Girl on the net says:

      OK so all of these are really interesting questions, and forgive me because it’s going to sound a little bit like I am sidestepping them in my answer, but there’s good reason for that, I promise! To your points about other sites (e.g. Twitter and other social sites), there’s a fundamental question, I think, of what the overall purpose of the site is. Which makes me sound like the BBFC when trying to regulate porn, for which I’m sorry =)

      The key for me is that tube sites are specifically, deliberately, categorically porn sites. Because of that, I actually do not think we need to invent new laws here. Instead I want to approach this from a different direction. Rather than asking ‘if we insist PornHub do this, what about other major websites which don’t focus on porn?’ how about instead we ask ‘what is it about the tube sites that makes them think they’re different *to other porn sites*?’

      If you head to DreamsOfSpanking.com (a fabulous site, ethical, diverse spanking porn – woo!) and scroll to the bottom of their site you’ll see a link to “18 U.S.C. 2257” – to indicate their compliance with this law on record-keeping for producers of sexually explicit materials: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Child_Protection_and_Obscenity_Enforcement_Act On DreamsOfSpanking that link goes to their compliance statement indicating that they keep records of their performers which prove they are of age and consenting to appear in the films: http://dreamsofspanking.com/pages/info/compliance-statement Now go have a look at the same statement on PornHub (which I’d rather not link to, but you can see it in the footer under 2257 – they essentially wash their hands of the issue, saying that because they are not the producer they cannot possibly keep records.

      They are essentially saying it is impossible for someone who is merely a content publisher (as opposed to a producer) to ever truly have this information, and therefore impossible for it to know if the people on the site are over 18. That says to me that PH believes it is impossible for any tube site to meet the requirements that are expected of *every porn producer*, because of the nature of their business model. So my question, rather than ‘what about other content providers, and how do we stop them getting wrapped up in a law designed to target PornHub?’ would be ‘why does PornHub think that it should be regulated as a content publisher akin to Twitter rather than a porn site… like all other porn sites?’

      “Would it be a major loss if the answer to this was “well, if they can’t do what is necessary, they cannot operate”? Would losing CupHub really be a bad thing? Perhaps not. But what about Twitter. And Facebook. And Dropbox. And online messaging services (which, by their very function, allow user uploads without pre-publishing checks)? And any blog with a comments section (could you validate that nothing in this comment infringes copyright?)? And so on. Is a non-interactive web really the web we want, because some people abuse their ability to upload?”

      My answer would be ‘if they can’t do what is necessary, they cannot operate’, honestly. And in fact it would absolutely be possible for tube sites to operate their same model, with some tweaks (i.e. not allowing user uploads without strict verification and instead being a hub/network for approved, verified producers – including amateur ones). But the problem is that tweaked system, which would make it far easier for them to comply with the 2257 law, and therefore easier for them to avoid publishing abuse content, would also have a significant impact on the amount of content they can upload, and therefore their revenue, and therefore their dominance in the market.

      So yeah – tl;dr, why should tube sites be treated like tech companies/publishers instead of like porn sites?

  • You are a living legend, this is the best way that this argument has ever been put to me and you are spot on. It is the whole ethos and business model that is the problem and yet again it will be the ethical businesses that are hit. Which in a perverse way will just help make CupHub even stronger and with more market share.

    Until viewers reconsider their own ethics this is a problem that won’t go away soon and makes me want to scream with rage – pay for your F’ing coffee people!

  • Matthew says:

    I find my issue with Pornhub is that it is so convenient.

    I’ll happily pay for my porn. I subscribe to frolicme, xconfessions, and use manyvids; but sometimes I have a specific itch for something that I know isn’t catered for on those.

    It’s easier to spend 30 seconds on Pornhub to find a video than search Google for a clip to buy or another service to subscribe to.

    Not that that is the right thing to do.

  • SpaceCaptainSmith says:

    Very well said.

    Honestly, in a sensible internet that held sites accountable for their content, sites like PornHub wouldn’t exist. I don’t pretend it’s an easy problem to solve – Neil’s lengthy comment above explores some of the obstacles. But a good start would be to remove the regulations in various countries that currently give websites automatic protection from liability for content posted by third parties. As for ‘what would that mean for the likes of Facebook?’ – they’ve got billions of dollars. They can afford the consequences.

    But the real issue here, as the blogpost illustrates, is that most people don’t think of porn as a thing that has any value, or a form of work that deserves to be paid for. The proliferation of tube sites with no standards (ironically very profitable themselves) is the result of a society that says sex is worthless.

    (As it happens, I’m not sure many people care that much about the ethical origins of their coffee either, but that’s by the by… at least they don’t expect it to be free.)

    • Girl on the net says:

      Yeah I think you’re right to split it into two here – there’s the bigger question of how porn can/should be regulated (which encompasses the tricky questions Neil’s posed above) as well as the broader cultural issue of how we engage with porn as consumers. One of my biggest frustrations re: publishers not being responsible for porn content is that smaller publishers definitely *are* held accountable for porn content that’s dodgy/abusive. If I published a photo on here of someone’s dick pic they’d sent me, and it turned out that they had not consented to that (or, as in the case with some of the recent cases on bigger tube sites – been under 18), I am pretty sure I would be held accountable, and rightly so, even though I did not ‘produce’ the image myself.

  • An issue that people – and by ‘people’ I mean the outraged – will wheel out about porn is that it is inherently exploitative, especially towards women. I mean, it isn’t, obviously, but these ‘people’ often don’t, in my experience, respond well to my “you’re clearly not watching the right sort or porn” response.

    Tch.

    An interesting point that’s been raised here in the comments (and your brilliant analogy which makes me really want coffee) is that PornHub et al. are treated less like a legitimate porn site than a tech company. The name of the parent company “MindGeek” doesn’t let on than it is anything else – I’d hire a company called “MindGeek” to fix a problem with my PC, rather than give me nicked porn.

    Whether or not this is a ploy to get out of massive DMCA-related shenanigans I’m not sure. It’s likely to be possible – although probably not legal – to get out of something by saying, “your issue is with RedTube, and we’re MindGeek” (or “your issue is with MindGeek, and we’re YouPorn” [or “your issue is with Thumbzilla, and we’re part of the Pornhub network, so talk to them”]), thus tying the complainant in knots. Public stigma are surrounding porn may put the performer or producer in question off pursuing such a claim.

    And then somone will probably upload the clip again anyway. Dumping free coffee at the door, as it were.

    So, yeah. I agree that porn can be exploitative, insofar as free tube sites ultimately lead to the embezzlement of pornographer’s money. That’s what exploitation is.

    I wrote about this myself three years ago. It’s depressing that nothing much has changed.

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