Today
Sat 17 April 2021

Laila Mickelwait says that the company allowed content featuring child sexual abuse and trafficking – and wants executives to be held to account

Laila Mickelwait doesn’t disguise her ultimate ambition – to bring down one of the world’s most successful adult entertainment sites, Pornhub, which has more monthly visitors than Netflix and generates annual revenues approaching $500 million. 

She hasn’t succeeded yet. But, against all odds, it looks like she’s winning.

This week, 70 Senators and MPs in Canada – where Pornhub is headquartered – wrote an open letter calling on police to launch a criminal investigation into its parent company, MindGeek.

They were responding to evidence presented to a parliamentary committee which heard that MindGeek has “regularly made available content featuring child sexual abuse, sexual assault, and sex trafficking”.

The company denies the allegations but, in December, it deleted nearly 10 million unverified videos – around 80% of its available footage.

“They couldn’t verify that these were not rape victims or children who were being abused on the site and they had to basically scrub the crime scene,” Mickelwait claims.

Pornhub relies on “user generated content” – meaning that viewers can upload their own sex videos, with the company raking in profits from advertising and selling data. It is a business model that has led to a complete disregard for the welfare of participants in the films, Mickelwait says, which often included girls and women who had been raped or trafficked.

Listen to Laila Mickelwait on this week’s episode of the Byline Times Podcast

She told the Byline Times Podcast that she had “discovered what many people around the world would already know – that it only took an email address to upload content on the world’s largest porn site. [There was] no age verification, no consent verification and that’s why the site became infested with videos of real rape, trafficking, assault and non-consensual content”.

A key moment in the campaign came in December when double Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nicholas Kristof published a powerful investigation in The New York Times, interviewing several survivors – including 19-year-old Serena Fleites, who had sent a naked video to a boyfriend at the age of 14 which was then posted without her knowledge on Pornhub.

The social stigma and sense of shame Fleites experienced when the images were seen by her classmates were so severe that she dropped out of school, became addicted to methamphetamine and opioids and twice tried to take her own life. She now lives in a car with her three dogs.

In another case, a 15-year-old girl who had gone missing from home was only located when her mother discovered that she featured in 58 Pornhub videos.  

Following Kristof’s report, both Mastercard and Visa withdrew their services from the site, after an earlier decision by PayPal to do the same.

What is baffling is why it has taken law enforcement around the world so long to act.  

The UK-based Internet Watch Foundation identified 118 examples of child sexual abuse on Pornhub between 2017 and 2019, with its chair Andrew Puddephatt stating that “one instance is one too many”.

Despite the weight of evidence against the company, Pornhub’s executives largely escaped censure – until Mickelwait began lobbying just over a year ago.

“I had written exposing this issue and people called on me to start a petition and the petition instantly went viral,” she said. “I got hundreds of thousands of views within the first two weeks, and now it has over two million [signatures] from 192 countries.”

In time-honoured corporate fashion, Pornhub has attacked the messenger, citing Mickelwait’s work with Christian advocacy group Exodus Cry, which seeks to abolish the sex trade, and referencing anti-LGBTQ comments made by its founder Benjamin Nolot.

None of this excuses the company’s own behaviour, with Mickelwait saying that Pornhub was “trying to defame me as an activist, trying to silence me and others who were raising the truth about this injustice and they did not respond as any responsible company would and apologise to the victims”.

Pornhub has been stung by the criticism. Last April, the firm hired Kaplan, Hecker and Fink – a New York law firm based in the Empire State Building – to review its compliance programme.  

In December, the site banned unverified uploads and last month announced expanded moderation as well as improved technology to identify illegal imagery and child exploitation across all porn platforms run by MindGeek.

This should significantly reduce the amount of harmful material on the site, but it does nothing to address the abuses of the past highlighted by Mickelwait.  

Canada, for example, has a law of mandatory reporting which obliges anyone with reasonable suspicion of child abuse to report it to the police. Evidence presented to the Ottawa Parliament suggests that Pornhub failed to alert the authorities of any cases between 2011 and 2020.

“There were instances where Pornhub was made aware that there were suspicions of sex with a minor and they may have, in some cases, taken a video down but they failed in their duty to mandatory report, absolutely,” Mickelwait told the Byline Times Podcast.

“It looks like what might happen in the near future is we will see an indictment and we will see a criminal prosecution of this company and executives.”

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