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Kennedy School Students Pen Dueling Letters to Visa on Payment Policies to Adult Websites

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More than 500 Harvard affiliates signed on to an open letter to Visa CEO Alfred F. Kelly, Jr., urging the company to adopt policies they argue will curb the spread of illegal pornographic materials, such as child pornography and those that result from sex trafficking.

Harvard Kennedy School students Pallavi Khare, Ethan Lyle ’13, and Christopher A. Musser penned the letter and sent it on the anniversary of a New York Times report documenting the spread of illegal content on the website Pornhub.

The letter asks Visa to implement a preventative policy similar to that of Mastercard’s, which requires sellers to obtain “clear, documented, and unambiguous consent” for all individuals depicted in adult content, as well as establish a “content review process prior to publication.”

Following New York Times article, Visa discontinued payments to Pornhub. The letter argues, however, that such policies do not address the extent of the issue.

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“The problem is systemic,” the letter reads. “Criminal sexual abuse is facilitated by many user-generated pornographic sites because they do not systematically or credibly verify the age or consent of the individuals in the videos they distribute and from which they profit.”

Musser wrote in an email that he was inspired to write the letter by a class assignment encouraging students to make an “ask” of their peers based on their personal values. Upon circulating the letter across his class section, he decided to try to collect more signatures.

In an interview, Khare and Musser said they spent hours collecting signatures around the Smith Campus Center, Harvard Business School, and other places around campus before hanging up flyers with a QR code that allowed passing individuals to view and sign the letter.

Though Khare and Musser said they received much support for their efforts, the letter has not received unanimous approval across Harvard.

After seeing a flyer highlighting the letter in a bathroom stall, Jessica E. K. Van Meir — a Ph.D. student in Public Policy at HKS — raised concerns to Khare, Lyle, and Musser that their recommended policy would amount to “financial discrimination” against sex workers and force mainstream pornographic websites to shut down, making sex trafficking and child pornography more difficult to “identify and combat.”

Van Meir said in an interview that much of the child sexual abuse material online is transmitted on social media and messaging apps, not just pornographic websites. She added she offered to provide Khare, Lyle, and Musser with her arguments and supporting data at their request.

Before she could provide them with the information, she said, the group sent the letter to honor the anniversary of New York Times article.

Van Meir said she was “disappointed” by their decision to send the letter due to its exclusion of the “stakeholders involved,” such as experts on anti-trafficking and advocates for sex workers.

Lyle wrote that the letter was sent with the consideration of Van Meir’s input, as well as expert perspectives.

“We evaluated numerous arguments and sources provided by Van Meir, and we also sought out additional perspectives from a variety of subject matter experts at HKS, [Harvard Law School], and beyond Harvard,” Lyle wrote. “Ultimately, we remain convinced that requiring verification of age and consent is a common sense standard that would do far more good than harm for people impacted by sex trafficking, rape, and abuse.”

“We decided to send the letter as planned, in keeping with our promise to the 500+ signatories,” he added.

In response to the original letter, Van Meir decided to pen a counter-letter to Visa to outline her concerns, focusing on the proposed policy’s potential harm to sex workers.

“Many survivors of sex trafficking, who are excluded from many economic and social supports through trauma, criminal records, marginalization, and discrimination, rely on these platforms to stay out of their trafficking situations,” Van Meir wrote. “When sex workers lose the platforms they rely on to survive, they are unable to support themselves and their families.”

“This economic vulnerability may force them into riskier situations such as street-based sex work and put them at greater risk of exploitation and trafficking,” she continued.

The Feminist Working Group, a part of the Harvard Graduate Students Union-United Automobile Workers, announced on Friday that it would sign on to Van Meir’s Letter, joining 78 other signatories, as of Sunday night.

Following Van Meir’s counter-letter, Khare, Lyle, and Musser published a set of responses disputing Van Meir’s claims, noting that “as with many complex issues, experts do not all agree.”

“We believe that if a website cannot implement safety protocols to avoid hosting illegal non-consensual content and operate profitably and pay its workers/contractors, it needs a new business model,” they wrote.

Lyle highlighted the support the original letter has received thus far and reiterated the complexity of the issue.

“We have received inspirational messages of support, including from survivors. We appreciate Van Meir’s engagement and hope to work together with her and other stakeholders on this complex issue going forward,” he wrote.

Visa did not respond to a request for comment on either letter.

—Staff writer Joshua S. Cai can be reached at joshua.cai@thecrimson.com.

—Staff writer Eric Yan can be reached at eric.yan@thecrimson.com.

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