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archived recording

(SINGING) Darling, do you have sway?

kara swisher

Welcome to a bonus episode of “Sway” with The New York Times opinion columnist Nick Kristof. We’ll be speaking about my recent interview with Mastercard C.E.O. Ajay Banga. If you haven’t heard the episode, please go back and listen. And if you have, well done, you can stay. All right, Nick, hello. How are you?

nick kristof

I’m great. Great to be with you.

kara swisher

So one of the things I talked about a lot and was inspired by you — by the way, I’m one of your biggest fans — you kind of forced Ajay Banga’s hand recently with your reporting on Pornhub, the company that’s profiting off of a large swath of what’s effectively child pornography. How did you find the story? Talk a little bit about the background of that.

nick kristof

So, years ago, I wrote about the issue of child sexual abuse images on the web. And I was kind of just staggered by how much there was and just kind of how grotesque it was. I think there was a misperception that a lot of this involved teenage girls taking off their tops or something. And in fact, a lot of it involved prepubescent kids being raped. And the numbers kept going up in ways that were just kind of overwhelming.

kara swisher

With the technology allowing people to have access everywhere.

nick kristof

Yeah, and you know this better than anyone, but we all thought — certainly, I was sort of optimistic about the internet empowering people all around the world. And what it really empowered was some of these big internet companies. And so, when I saw that there were three big and highly irresponsible pornography platforms in the top 10 most visited websites in the world, I began to think about doing something about this. So then, after talking to some people, I browsed Pornhub and some of the first videos that I saw were of unconscious women being raped. And the rapists were showing that they were unconscious by touching their eyeballs and tickling their feet and things like this. And it was just — I mean, it was just horrifying.

kara swisher

Were you surprised by how the access was so easy?

nick kristof

In the case of Pornhub and I think the other sites, I must say, I do think that the overwhelming share of the material on it involves consenting adults. And I’m perfectly fine with that. But they seem to have very little interest in trying to keep out videos of people being raped, videos of kids. And it also just offended me that they were monetizing these rapes. And I talked to some young people who had been trafficked and raped. And then those videos were posted on Pornhub. And then the company was, again, profiting from those.

kara swisher

It is a massive content company. As you reported, it attracts 3.5 billion visits a month, more than Netflix, Yahoo, or Amazon. And they tend to do what actually other platforms do, whether it’s political content or anti-vax content. They hide behind the idea that they’re platforms, not publishers. And it allows users to upload their own content, which I think is a lot of the problem, rather than dealing with professionals, I guess. I mean, there’s this idea of who is a professional maker of porn. And there’s lots of those. I know a whole bunch of them in San Francisco. And they monetize, and it’s all consenting and adult content, but made by adults for adults about adults. So, in a way, it’s similar to user generated content in particular, which makes it similar to YouTube. What do you make of this idea of platforms versus publishers? Because this is a way that a lot of internet companies get away m and certainly, Pornhub.

nick kristof

Yeah, at the end of the day, I do think that, whether platforms or publishers, that they do have some responsibility for what goes on their site. And —

kara swisher

Sure do.

nick kristof

— there’s certainly a public benefit to providing forums and allowing people to post things of various kinds. But that also, I think, does come with responsibility. And the same is true of a bulletin board at the local laundromat. And there is a public benefit to the community to having that. But that laundromat also has some responsibility about things that people post there.

kara swisher

Well, they don’t look at it that way, though. I mean, they make a very big case. And that’s not just Pornhub. It’s all the different sites that call themselves. Some of them call themselves platishers. Do you know that word?

nick kristof

Oh, I had not heard that.

kara swisher

It’s publishers and platforms. They’re not exactly platforms. They’re not exactly publishers. And so, it allows them to slip out, whatever the content is. In this case, it’s hideous abuse of porn, especially to young kids. So you decided to go at it via the payment method. And you sort of baited them to do something about it. And you wrote, “Call me a prude. I don’t see why search engines, banks, or credit card companies should bolster a company that monetizes sexual assaults on children or unconscious women if PayPal can suspend cooperation on Pornhub, which it did last year. So can American Express, MasterCard, and Visa. PayPal was one of the first to move in 2019 on this issue.”

nick kristof

Yeah. I, frankly, didn’t particularly anticipate that the credit card companies would go ahead. So I was very surprised when they responded. Almost immediately, Mastercard cut off purchases of premium content on Pornhub, not purchases of ads. And Visa suspended them pending further investigation.

kara swisher

So how do you feel about the ecosystem? I mean, is Pornhub the problem or these companies that facilitate it, whether it’s even website makers, or there’s all kinds of vendors that these companies use all over the internet.

nick kristof

There are all kinds of players that are the problem. Obviously, the biggest violators are those people who are raping unconscious women or children and posting those videos. I have some sympathy for the enablers because in your conversation with Ajay, he mentioned that these are slippery slopes. And they are. There are clearly going to be things that I disapprove of that other people will approve of, and I recognize that. But hard choices are inevitable when you run a company. And I think that the credit cards should also be pushed into drawing a line. And I think it’s been too easy for them just to say, oh, we won’t allow purchases of things that are illegal.

kara swisher

Banga said that in the interview. He kept toeing a line of legal versus illegal. I don’t want to judge people, this and that. How do you assess that argument? And because it’s very easy to go, OK, this is legal, this is not. It’s a really easy way to get out of responsibility.

nick kristof

Yeah, but in a Mastercard boardroom, if somebody made a disparaging comment about women or about members of different ethnic groups then that would clearly be a legally protected view. It would also be completely unacceptable, and that person would be fired. There all kinds of behaviors that are legal that companies simply will not tolerate within the company. So I think likewise, companies need to recognize the sense of broader responsibility. As you know better than I, there has been all this talk over the last 15, 20 years among companies about how they have to honor not just shareholders, but stakeholders.

kara swisher

Yeah, that’s their new thing. I’d love to know what you think of, it’s inclusionist capitalism, compassionate capitalism. I can imagine you laughing. I mean, it used to be called corporate social responsibility, but and now, it has all kinds of names and probably experts from Harvard and stuff like that. And you must be like, you’re kidding me.

nick kristof

At some level, I think this is really important and that when companies do the right thing in sourcing, in employment practices, that moves the needle in a way that nonprofits cannot.

kara swisher

Absolutely.

nick kristof

So when companies do it, it’s sustainable, it’s scalable. It can really be important in setting norms. But at the same time, it’s been almost 20 years that companies have kind of talked a good game about this. Pharmaceutical companies were particularly good about talking a good game. And they frankly did an awful lot about distributing drugs for neglected diseases. And then, at the same time, they were peddling opioids in ways that result in now 70,000 Americans dying a year from overdoses. And so, I think there’s tremendous potential for companies to do better. But so far, I find it incredibly disappointing. I think it’s mostly window dressing. And I don’t think they’ve thought hard enough about how they can contribute a little bit more to society in the ways they employ people, in their real estate sighting decisions, in their procurement practices, et cetera, et cetera. And in this case, in a world of finance, they will provide credit card services to you, for example.

kara swisher

One internet executive said to me during the Trump administration when there was one thing after the next, whether it was the Muslim ban or they were trans things or things like that, they were like, we can’t react to everything. And at one point, they were splitting them up. They were like, we’ll take gay, you take Muslims or immigrants. And then they sort of pulled away from it. Now companies have been at the forefront a lot. Apple was at the forefront of a lot of gay issues very early on in Texas 20, 30 years ago. When we’re calling on corporations to be that way, Ajay was like, we’ll do it on a piecemeal basis, essentially. Or illegal, illegal seemed to be his thing.

nick kristof

I think that’s easier for a company. But likewise, it’d be easier for The New York Times to say that we’ll interview anybody for a podcast, whatever their views because those are illegal. But clearly, you’re not going to interview a KKK person who’s fomenting hate. And so, judgment is necessary, as well as some notion of where the law is. And I also think that view about simply following legal lines is going to be unsustainable because young people who these companies have to fight for in recruiting and retention, I don’t think they want to work for a company that just observes the law. I think they want to work for companies that have values. My generation, in general, our sense of kind of doing the right thing meant at the end of the year, we’d write a check for some good organization. And I think young people also want to work for a company that has good values.

kara swisher

Sure, Ajay talked about that, about millennials, instead of cash back, they wanted trees back. I think they want cash back and trees back, but that’s a different story. But again, corporate speak. You see all these ads now, whatever it is, that they try to sort of push this idea. And when you press them on it, they tend to be exhausted by it. And I can see that point of view. We can’t be the social arbiters of everything in the world.

nick kristof

Yeah, I think that’s right, but I do think that employees and customers are going to push them in that direction. You see that with law firms. Law firms have some of the best corporate social responsibility around in the form of pro bono work. And that’s because when they are hiring newly minted lawyers, that’s something that those young lawyers care a great deal about and because they’re a good metrics about pro bono work that magazines put out. And so, there are clear ways of kind of assessing that CSR. And so, I think the same is going to happen in corporate America. Right now, boards aren’t heavily invested in this kind of stakeholder issue, other than in marketing. I think that for recruitment, retention for branding, for et cetera, that 10 years from now, they will have to do a lot more, and that it won’t be possible just to say, well, we’re not going to allow services for things that are illegal, but everything else is OK.

kara swisher

Right, that works on porn, especially, you say, child porn. I think very few people in Capitol Hill or in corporations would object. But guns — the minute you start pushing it on guns or something else, which you’ve mentioned to me —

nick kristof

Yeah, so there’s clearly going to be kind of picking and choosing.

kara swisher

Ajay was talking about this, that they didn’t want to do guns because they’re not illegal. His point also was that in, say, a Walmart overall transaction, there’s no data point of sale to him. So Walmart sells — you can buy diapers and a gun there. You don’t know what they bought. You just know they made a purchase of so much money.

nick kristof

But if you look at Walmart, for example, I think that’s actually a good example in that Walmart did take away gun sales in an awful lot of its stores. It still sells guns in some, but not in others. So in the case of guns, what I’d love to see the credit card companies do is still allow their cards to be used for gun purchases, but place a few restrictions. Say, those sales should not be to people who are under 21, which is allowed in some states, that they should not be allowed for sales where a background check has not been completed. Because, in general, in the U.S., a background check is required. But if it can’t be completed in 72 hours, the gun can be sold anyway. So 20% of guns in the U.S. are acquired without a background check. The credit card companies should say, OK, we will allow Mastercard to be used to buy a gun, but only if that background check has been completed. And maybe there has to be a video recording at the point of sale.

kara swisher

Except they’re saying they don’t know what it is. They don’t know whether they’re buying diapers or guns. That’s the example he gave. We don’t know if it’s diapers or guns that they’re buying. And we don’t want to know what they’re buying in a Walmart. In a gun store, sure, you know who’s a gun merchant. So wouldn’t that be discriminatory towards gun sales people versus a Walmart?

nick kristof

Yeah, but you could, if you announced these requirements, then it’d be up to Walmart to adhere to them and to say, OK, sorry, sir, your background check hasn’t cleared. We’re not allowed to accept Mastercard for that transaction. And it’d be difficult to enforce, I accept. And this wouldn’t solve the gun violence problem in America. Might it perhaps make a little bit of a difference? Yeah, I think perhaps it would.

kara swisher

Well, do we want a payments network to be the arbiter of good and bad? Do we want any of these people? Right now, Apple and Facebook are fighting falsely and, in many ways, over privacy. Now Apple has been a big protector of consumer privacy comparatively to Facebook, which is essentially a data thief of the 21st century. That’s what I call them. And they’re arguing over, I’m here for small business, I’m here for this. Do we want to get payments networks like Mastercard or a Facebook or an Apple to be the ones protecting us in different ways? Isn’t this the role of government? Does it make you nervous at all that they step in?

nick kristof

It makes me somewhat nervous. And I completely agree that it would be better for government to step in. I think it’s outrageous that we don’t have universal background checks to buy guns when 90% even of gun owners approve of the idea. Yet, at the end of the day, we don’t have universal background checks. There’s a real failing there. So wouldn’t we be better off as a society, and would fewer people die each day if, indeed, a credit card company said, OK, they can only be used if a background check has been completed? Yeah, I think we would be.

kara swisher

What other areas, guns, pornography, what do you think they should be involved in? I mean, should you say, don’t buy any sugared cereals? Don’t buy — this is what you’re going to get from a lot of people. Like, stop eating that McDouble. Put it down right now. You can’t buy that McDonald’s. You’re over a certain weight. There’s a big push right now to get companies to require people to take vaccinations, which is not being met with a lot of enthusiasm by some. And others think it’s great.

nick kristof

As I said, I mean, The New York Times faces these same slippery slopes. And if people want to — we disapprove of sugary cereals, but if somebody wants to put an ad on your show for sugary cereals, I’m sure that The Times —

kara swisher

We have no sugary cereal ads on this show yet. I’d be happy to have Oreos. No, go ahead.

nick kristof

No, I think that you said that the only consumer product — we don’t allow tobacco advertising. So yeah, there’s a slippery slope, but we have not slid down it. And other companies can likewise make that choice. When you push me on the question of, where I would take this beyond guns, I have trouble answering that. At least for starters, I would settle for child sexual abuse imagery and limitations on guns, although not banning gun sales.

kara swisher

So what is your next move on Pornhub and other things like it? Where do you think you need to go here? They’re looking into it. They tend to, as you go away, they tend to stop doing what they’re doing. What is your next move here? What’s critically important, do you think, in dealing with this sort of scourge of child pornography, especially amplified by the internet, which has become a great way for people to avail themselves to things that are abusive?

nick kristof

Well, Pornhub essentially adopted my recommendations. And —

kara swisher

They’ve gotten rid of user generated.

nick kristof

Yeah, so I don’t feel a need to go after them at this point. I do think that it’s important to have some consistency and go after all actors in a sector. And right now, the company that owns X Videos, they’re based in Europe. When I searched middle school on X Videos, then it suggested also searching elementary school. I think that the companies like that can do better. So I’d like to see more pressure on X Videos to take steps that are similar to those that were taken by Pornhub.

kara swisher

Did you look at YouTube?

nick kristof

I really didn’t. I did search Twitter and immediately found child pornography being sold and encountered girls being trafficked on Facebook. I mean, there’s clearly a problem across the board. But I think the low hanging fruit is things like X Videos where they recommend a search for elementary school.

kara swisher

What do you imagine a worldwide solution here? Because these things can go into different countries. If we had laws in this country, it just shifts to another place.

nick kristof

I think that is true for a lot of issues. And certainly the dark web is a little bit harder to control, et cetera. So if you look at X Videos and Pornhub, I think that’s kind of a good example. So X Videos’ holding company is based in the Czech Republic. Its programmers seem to be, or a lot of its video developers, seem to be in Ukraine. Its owners are in France. But child pornography is an issue that basically pretty much everybody feels some revulsion for. And I think that it would be possible for the U.S., Canada, other companies, to provide some leadership on this and to push these companies. Simply, if they provided some civil liability for those people whose rape videos go on X Videos, that would lead to much better self policing by these companies.

kara swisher

You’re talking about liability. You know what’s interesting. I’m not sure if you’re aware of this, but right now, there’s this big debate over Section 230. The original bill that 230 was attached to — and it’s the only piece that survived — was called the Communications Decency Act.

nick kristof

Decency Act.

kara swisher

And I happened to be there. I covered it for The Washington Post when it was passed, and there was a lot of issues around pornography, exactly this, on the internet. There was a lunch that, of all people, Fawn Hall was at, showing people pictures of what was on the internet. A lot of it was child pornography, to try to shock legislators into action. This was 25 years ago, the idea. So when we are thinking about these platforms and liability, do you believe that these platforms, including credit card companies that facilitate this, is there a liability there? Is that the way to go if you’re going to let the lawyers take over?

nick kristof

Yeah, I think that one of the reasons that companies like Pornhub didn’t do better was that they perceived themselves as being shielded historically by Section 230 and that they would have been better, and they would have take — I mean, these steps that they took recently I think really are important. I think they might have taken them a few years ago if they hadn’t felt protected by Section 230. So I’d like to see some changes in Section 230. How far we change it, I don’t really know. At the end of the day, I’m not really a believer in that companies or individuals follow the better angels of their own nature on their own. I’m not a great believer that sensitivity training produces better executives. I think that you create consequences. And you make shareholders pay. Or maybe you send an executive to jail and that that creates better behavior. By eliminating civil liability and basically, de facto not providing any criminal liability, I think that we resulted in companies profiting from some really egregious actions. Once you allow a sector to do that, then any individual company, it’s hard for that one company to be responsible when all of its rivals are profiting from underage sex videos. So I think part of the answer is allowing more liability and that that will lead companies to have epiphanies about their responsibility to society.

kara swisher

Do you ever worry about looking like a scold?

nick kristof

I do, and the pornography issue, I was nervous about that in particular, because there clearly are people who are deeply upset by porn. And there are all kinds of issues that I worry about in the world. And that doesn’t make the top 50 or whatever. So yeah, I worry about that. That is why I was very, very careful in my article to emphasize this is not about porn. This is about rape.

kara swisher

Which is a huge distinction. So what about your own power as a journalist? I mean, we talked about it. This is a $300 billion payments company. You got change at Pornhub. And you also inspired a GoFundMe effort to help a young woman get out of homelessness. How do you look at that power of shame and the idea of pointing a light at it? I mean, Mastercard has power over Pornhub. But you had power over Mastercard. Is that the only way, is that you decide one day to write this story?

nick kristof

Well, in journalism, we can be in the heating business or in the lighting business.

kara swisher

Talk about heating versus lighting.

nick kristof

So heating is the classic kind of cable television, people yelling at each other and saying how awful things are. And there’s clearly a good business model for that. I like to think that, actually, our power derives more from lighting. When we do the shouting that people who start out agreeing with us tend to think, oh, that was brilliant, people who start out disagreeing tend to think, oh they completely missed the point. And I find that when I write about abortion, Middle East, et cetera, then I don’t really change minds. But where I think journalism has real power is its gatekeeper function, is shining a light on issues that are neglected, and thereby projecting those issues onto the public agenda and forcing difficult conversations. So I try to do that periodically, and I don’t do it all the time because if I always write about issues that are off the agenda, then I’m just kind of irrelevant. And but I do think that that is something that the media can do that we have this great spotlight, that there are a lot of things that deserve more attention, and forcing those difficult conversations is often a step toward progress.

kara swisher

So any guest ideas I should have on soon? You have a worldwide view of things.

nick kristof

Hm. I feel like I’ve been so disappointed over the last 20 years by the failures of companies to do better, but I do still believe that there are real possibilities.

kara swisher

I want to interview the ghost of Milton Friedman on this issue, but he’s not available.

nick kristof

Well, if you get the ghost of Milton Friedman, then please reproach him because I think he really led the country in the wrong direction. So I’m not sure who the best person to talk about that is, but they could do an awful lot better and an awful lot of social good if they cast a net more widely.

kara swisher

But they’re giving out trees, Nick.

nick kristof

Yeah.

kara swisher

I don’t believe any of it, I’ll be honest with you, especially when I started hearing it coming out of the mouths of tech people. Anyway, I really appreciate it. It was wonderful journalism that you’ve done, and you’ve really impacted it. I hope that it continues. Thank you so much.

nick kristof

Thanks a lot. Great to chat.

kara swisher

Thanks for listening. If you’re not subscribed to “Sway,” why not? Do it now. We’re taking a break this Thursday, but we’ll be back with a new episode on Monday. [MUSIC PLAYING]



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