The Current

Canada vows to tackle online exploitation amid abuse allegations against Pornhub

Companies like Pornhub could face millions of dollars in fines for posting illegal content online under legislation the federal government plans to introduce in early 2021, says Canada’s heritage minister.

Montreal-based pornography website announced changes Tuesday to combat child sexual abuse material

A recent report in the New York Times alleges Pornhub is 'infested' with rape videos and videos of child exploitation. The company has called the accusations 'flagrantly untrue.' (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Read story transcript

Companies like Pornhub could face millions of dollars in fines for posting illegal pornographic content online under legislation the federal government plans to introduce in early 2021, says Canada's heritage minister.

"Unfortunately for many of these companies, they may not listen to morality, but they will listen to money," Steven Guilbeault told The Current's Matt Galloway.

"The way to get companies to comply is by imposing fines when they do not comply. And that's one thing we can't do yet in Canada, but that's one thing we will be able to do in the very near future."

A recent report from the New York Times alleges Pornhub is "infested" with rape videos, and hosts millions of posts depicting child abuse and non-consensual violence. The article also questions why Canada allows Pornhub — a subsidiary of Montreal-based company Midgeek — to profit off such exploitation.

Pornhub has pushed back against the accusations, calling them "flagrantly untrue." The company says it uses extensive measures, including "a vast team of human moderators," to protect its pornography website from illegal material.

"We have zero tolerance for [child sexual abuse material]," the company said in a statement to The Current. "Pornhub is unequivocally committed to combating [child sexual abuse material], and has instituted an industry-leading trust and safety policy to identify and eradicate illegal material from our community."

Users who register an account with the site can upload their own videos, similar to YouTube.

On Tuesday, Pornhub announced new rules that it said would better protect the platform from online abuse, including banning people from downloading videos, and only allowing "properly identified users" to upload content to the website. The company said it also plans to issue its first "transparency report" next year.

Minister of Canadian Heritage Steven Guilbeault says the federal government wants to work with other countries to implement international law that would tackle child exploitation and other illegal content online. (Alex Tétreault - PMO/CPM)

Nicholas Kristof, the Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist behind the New York Times report, said the ability for users to download Pornhub content directly to their computers, instead of streaming it, is problematic because it means abusive videos can be shared elsewhere thousands of times and may never be removed from the internet.

Kristof told Galloway that he thinks many countries need to do better at investigating abusive, illegal online content. 

"But I do think that Canada, as host for this company, has a special responsibility and that it hasn't fully lived up to that," he said.

Illegal online content a 'global problem': minister

As part of his appointment as heritage minister just over a year ago, Guilbeault was tasked with creating new regulations that would require online platforms to remove illegal content within 24 hours. The rules would apply to hate speech, child exploitation, incitement of violence and similar forms of harm.

Guilbeault said that although Pornhub is currently at the centre of this discussion around online abuse, it's a "global problem" that also applies to other websites.

We're talking about Pornhub, but we could be talking about Facebook. We could be talking about Instagram.- Steven Guilbealt, Canadian heritage minister

"We're talking about Pornhub, but we could be talking about Facebook. We could be talking about Instagram," Guilbeault said.

"So we want the rules to be the same for everyone. And then if they don't comply with those rules, then we will impose fines."

New York Times journalist and Pulitzer Prize winner Nicholas Kristof. (Jennifer Barr/CBC)

Mindgeek is headquartered in Luxembourg, but operates out of Montreal and other global locations, and hosts content outside Canada. That makes it tricky for police to pinpoint what jurisdiction the company falls under when it comes to investigating abuse or criminal activity.

Guilbeault said that's why Canada is working with other countries like France and Australia to address the issue.

"My belief is that, as we continue working on this, there'll be more and more countries joining us," said Guilbeault. 

"And eventually the fact that the company is in Canada or registered in Luxembourg won't matter, because we will have been able to put in place global legislation to tackle this problem."

Age verification needed, says child advocate

Signy Arnason, assistant executive director of the Canadian Centre for Child Protection, said her organization is pleased that the federal government is working on addressing this issue.

The charity has been tracking the prevalence of child sexual abuse material online, and over the last three and a half years has analyzed more than 126 billion images, issued 6.5 million notices for platforms to remove inappropriate content, and has a backlog of over 20 million pieces of suspect media left to comb through, she said.

Arnason said she believes the assertion that Pornhub does not host any of this kind of material is "false."

Somehow online … we've just left it to be a free-for-all. And children are paying the price for this.- Signy Arnason, Canadian Centre for Child Exploitation

While it is relatively easy to determine when a young child is pictured in abusive online material, she said it becomes much more difficult to discern the age of teenage victims.

"There's no way when you're looking at an image of a 16-year-old that you can, in fact, tell that they are underage. It's absolutely impossible," she told Galloway.

"Anyone who intersects with user-generated content and allows adult pornography is going to intersect with child sexual abuse material."

Signy Arnason is the assistant executive director of the Canadian Centre for Child Protection. (Gary Solilak/CBC)

At the end of the day, she said, there need to be regulations in place to control this kind of content. She suggested that websites like Pornhub create a means of verifying the age of users on their platform, to prevent young people from being lured into abusive situations online.

"And the site has a responsibility to know whether the individuals within the video that is being uploaded are of age," Arnason added. 

"We do this with the adult industry in all other spaces, but somehow online … we've just left it to be a free-for-all. And children are paying the price for this."


Written by Kirsten Fenn. Produced by Lindsay Rempel and Idella Sturino.

now