Pornhub execs testify before Canadian ethics panel amid child sex abuse investigation

Unsplash/Glenn Carstens-Peters

Executives of MindGeek, the parent company of the pornography website Pornhub, testified before a Canadian ethics committee on Friday over allegations that it profited off of child sexual abuse, rape, sex-trafficking and non-consensually distributed content.

MindGeek executives David Marmorstein Tassillo and Feras Antoon were questioned by the Canadian House of Commons Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics, which launched the investigation this month.

 “We’re trying to create a safe environment for people to consume adult content, and we understand there are people out there that are trying to misuse these platforms,” Tassillo claimed, according to CTV News Montreal.

On Feb. 1, the committee heard the testimonies of Serena Fleites, a survivor of image-based child sexual abuse distributed through Pornhub, and Michael Bowe, an American lawyer who has been investigating MindGeek sites for about a year.

According to the National Center on Sexual Exploitation, Bowe informed the committee that his investigation found hundreds of cases of rape, abuse and trafficking hosted by MindGeek sites.

He shared a few examples, including a 15-year-old girl who was raped while being videotaped. The video was posted on Pornhub and distributed to her community, Bowe told the committee.

He also stated that after Pornhub refused to remove the video for three weeks, the company then claimed the video had been removed but was left up on the website for another two months. 

Fleites told the panel that her boyfriend pressured her to make a sex video of herself and send it to him. Although she felt uncomfortable doing so, she said her boyfriend threatened to leave her if she didn’t. When she made the video he requested and sent it to him, she claimed that her boyfriend sent the video to his friends, who later sent the video to other friends. 

Despite changing schools, she said a new classmate sent her a link to a video featuring her on Pornhub titled "13-year-old brunette shows off for the camera.” Fleites said it took weeks for Pornhub to take down the video despite her pleas. 

The MindGeek executives were asked to respond to Fleites testimony but said they could not confirm if Fleites ever contacted the company without the results of an investigation the company launched after hearing about her testimony in a New York Times article last year. 

“[W]e've started an investigation and we do not have enough information to see if she ever contacted us or not,” Antoon was quoted as saying. 

Bowe cited another example of a child under the age of 10 who was trafficked and had child sexual abuse material made of her for over 10 years posted on Pornhub and remained there until late last year. 

He added that a 15-year-old girl was secretly filmed then coerced into making other intimate videos posted on Pornhub and her personal information. Bowe claimed this resulted in her suffering long-term abuse and stalking. When she contacted Pornhub, he said they refused to search for the videos or take any other measures to prevent their distribution.

MindGeek does not host such videos by “mistake,” but they knowingly profit from illegal content, Bowe argued. 

“The evidence is overwhelming,” he contended. 

Pornhub is one of the most visited websites globally, averaging approximately 3.5 billion visits a month, making it more popular than Amazon, Netflix or Yahoo.

Fleites said her videos posted on Pornhub were “clearly child porn.”

“They could tell that was a child in the video, and they were still dragging out this process,” she said. “They didn’t want to take the video down because, at this point, it had millions of views and was bringing them in ad revenue and clicks to their site.”

Charlie Angus, a parliamentarian from the New Democratic Party, assured Fleites that the body is “going to take action.” 

“We are going to hold these guys to account,” he said. “That is our job as legislators and as parents because the system failed you.”  

In December, Pornhub announced that it enacted “huge changes’ after a New York Times exposé revealed the company had been profiting off videos of rape and child sex trafficking victims.

As part of the changes, only verified users can upload content to the website, moderation will be increased, users can't download content and relationships with nonprofits to flag unacceptable content will be formed.

“At Pornhub, nothing is more important than the safety of our community. Our core values such as inclusivity, freedom of expression and privacy are only possible when our platform is trusted by our users,” a Pornhub statement reads. 

“This is why we have always been committed to eliminating illegal content, including non-consensual material and child sexual abuse material. Every online platform has the moral responsibility to join this fight, and it requires collective action and constant vigilance.”

During Friday’s hearing, Tassillo stated that the company integrated technology and moderators to guard against unauthorized content. Content that is uploaded to the website, he said, “goes through several filters" before it is made public. 

Pornhub’s changes come on the heels of credit card companies Visa and Mastercard saying they would temporarily ban the use of their cards on Pornhub and intend to “investigate” their relationships with MindGeek websites. The site also reportedly removed all content that was not uploaded by either a “content partner” or a verified user.

Angus implied that the company might have violated the law by promoting the videos featuring child victims. 

“At any point, when you were promoting these links of 12-year-olds and runaway teens, was your conversation that you were actually breaking Canadian law?” asked Angus. “The issue that we're talking about here is criminal behavior, the Criminal Code, your obligations to protect people.”

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