MindGeek Execs Testify on Moderation Before Canadian Parliamentary Committee

MindGeek Execs Testify on Moderation Before Canadian Parliamentary Committee

OTTAWA — The second meeting of Canada’s House of Commons’ Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics regarding MindGeek's content moderation occurred today, with the testimony and questioning of top execs at the company.

MindGeek’s top operational officers Feras Antoon and David Tassillo appeared before a largely hostile committee to answer questions about the company’s record of moderation of allegedly illegal content uploaded by third-party users onto their tube site Pornhub.

The meeting was chaired by MP for the Alberta Conservative Party, Chris Waretkin, who had also presided over the first hearing on Monday.

MindGeek is headquartered in Luxembourg, although many of its operations are run from Montreal; Antoon and Tassillo were identified by the New York Times as Canadian nationals.

The Long Shadow of Monday's Hearing

The first hearing on Monday loomed over today’s often aggressive grilling of the MindGeek execs by several MPs from Canada’s four major political parties. The MPs repeatedly referred to the emotional presentation by Serena Fleites, a young woman from California who was at the center of “The Children of Pornhub,” Nicholas Kristof’s article for the New York Times targeting Pornhub that was published on December 4, 2020.

Fleites had told the committee of having difficulties getting Pornhub to remove a video she had shot of herself as a teenager that she sent to a boyfriend and which was allegedly repeatedly uploaded onto the tube site by unidentified third parties.

The centerpiece of Monday’s hearing was a lengthy presentation by Fleites’ lawyer, a NYC-based litigator, Michael Bowe, who has previously represented disgraced evangelist Jerry Falwell Jr. and Donald Trump.

In an unusual development, Waretkin’s first scheduled meeting on the subject featured a non-Canadian liability lawyer openly advocating for changes in Canadian law so that a non-Canadian client could sue a Canada-based company ran by Canadian execs for a ruinous amount in damages.

XBIZ contacted Waretkin about the reason behind his decision to foreground Bowe’s testimony, but his office did not reply.

Aggressive MPs vs. MindGeek

Today’s hearing started with a stern Waretkin warning his witnesses that they were under oath and lack of cooperation with the committee “might result in being found in contempt of Parliament.”

Antoon emphasized the MindGeek executives' status as fathers and family men and reminded the committee of their “1,800 employees with families and loved ones,” most of them Canadians.

The general approach of Antoon and Tassillo was to point at what they considered MindGeek’s status as the tech industry’s leader in proactive content moderation.

Again and again, both execs referred to the “work in progress” nature of content moderation in general, to their oft-repeated line that the eradication of Child Sexual Abuse Material (CSAM) from their platform has always been a priority for the company, and that “one illegal video uploaded is one too many.”

They faced a quadripartisan grilling squad comprised of more MPs than had sat through Fleites’ testimony and Bowe’s presentation on Monday.

Today’s questioners included Committee Chair Chris Warkentin (Conservative, Alberta); Shannon Stubbs (Conservative, Alberta); Brendan Shanahan (Liberal, Châteauguay—Lacolle); Marie-Hélène Gaudreau (Bloc Québécois, Laurentides—Labelle); and Charlie Angus (NDP, Timmins—James Bay), all of whom participated in Monday’s hearing, plus Nathaniel Erskine-Smith (Liberal, Beaches-East York); Patricia Lattanzio (Liberal, Saint-Léonard—Saint-Michel); Arnold Viersen (Conservative, Alberta); Francesco Sorbara (Liberal, Vaughan—Woodbridge); Han Dong (Don Valley North); and Jacques Gourde (Conservative, Lotbinière—Chutes-de-la-Chaudière).

If last Monday the MPs used their time to praise Fleites’ testimony and repeat that they were going to take action against MindGeek and Pornhub, today their mood had changed to one of constant accusations, peppered with moments of contempt for the witnesses and emotional outbursts and language.

The main aggressions towards the Canadian executives came from all sides of the aisles, from a flippant Liberal Nathaniel Erskine-Smith, who was in full prosecutorial mode and constantly interrupted Antoon and Tassillo to get to his next “gotcha” point; to militantly anti-all-porn Conservative Shannon Stubbs; to Liberal Han Dong obsessed with getting every single financial detail from the witnesses’ private lives; to folksy NDP MP Charlie Angus, who after lambasting the witnesses in moments of sheer outrage, finished by wondering out loud if the aggressive targeting of MindGeek’s business information might not actually be entirely relevant to the issue at hand.

MindGeek VP Corey Price, a key part of the company's communication team, also appeared before the committee, and was singled out by one of the most hostile MPs, Arnold Viersen, who insisted in outing his legal name.

Price had been first identified by his legal name by religious anti-Pornhub crusader Leila Mickelwait, from Exodus Cry, in a recent editorial against the adult industry published by right-wing propaganda newspaper the Washington Examiner.

'We Always Can Do More'

The Serena Fleites case was the focus of many of the questions. Antoon and Tassillo alleged that, regardless of the moderation situation she alleges, they themselves only became aware of Fleites’ name when Nicholas Kristof contacted their communications team for comment in September 2020, while he was working on “The Children of Pornhub” article.

The execs also allege that Fleites or her attorney Michael Bowe did not share with them, at the time, the correspondence that would have helped them identify how her situation had been handled.

An indignant Erskine Smith claimed, again and again, that the company “failed to take all action” to address issues like Fleites’. The Liberal MP, like the others, only referred to “young women” and “young women like Serena who have been victimized on your site” as the targets of this probe, without mentioning men and trans people. This is consistent with the religious campaign Traffickinghub, which exclusively presents their crusade in terms of “saving young women.”

Tassillo admitted as an answer to several of the questions that “we [MindGeek] always can do more” and spoke about MindGeek’s cooperation with law enforcement.

One tense exchange occurred when MPs Arnold Viersen and Charles Angus kept bringing up a different case concerning an alleged victim who goes by the name of “Rose Kalemba" that has been championed by religious anti-porn group Exodus Cry; another tense moment occurred when Erskine Smith asked the witnesses to respond to information published by the Globe & Mail newspaper based on anonymous allegations by supposed former employees.

'Moderators' vs. 'Formatters'

Erskine Smith and the Globe & Mail repeated Michael Bowe’s assertion that “MindGeek's moderators are actually called ‘formatters,’” which was flatly denied by Tassillo.

“Formatters have nothing to do with the compliance team,” Tassillo explained, although his comment was repeatedly ignored by the MPs, who kept asking moderation-related questions regarding “formatters,” apparently based on what they read in the newspaper.

Another feature of the hearing was the ceaseless statements of disgust by several MPs, some of which, like Stubbs, appeared to be asking for the total eradication of adult material.

Marie-Hélène Gaudreau told Antoon and Tassillo that she “would not be able to sleep well tonight” if she didn’t confront them “as a mother” about “what your conscience tells you as a parent.”

MP Lattanazio said that, regardless of the witnesses’ answers, “this is morally wrong.” Jacques Gourde said that the he was disappointed that the execs “put the onus on their business, which they run well, but they seem to downplay the human element."

Gourde accused the company of “doing collateral damage to young people that are in terrible trouble if they’re involved in pornography,” before veering off into a condemnation of Pornhub in general.

“We will never be able to find the trigger” for what may ruin young people’s lives, he said, “but your site is the trigger for a large number of societal problems.”

Stubbs said that the situation “turns one’s stomach, doesn’t it?” and dismissed the claim that content moderation is not a general problem shared with other Big Tech companies because “every single one of these platforms bans the content you’re profiting [on].”

When one of the witnesses corrected her to note that Twitter and Reddit also allow for adult content, Stubbs amended her statement to make it clear that her objection is that Pornhub’s business model — as opposed to Twitter’s or Reddit’s — is mainly based on adult content.

A Voluminous Request for Records

The two-hour meeting ended with the committee requesting voluminous information from MindGeek, including: the results of an independent review into their moderation practices; corporate structure of their businesses and subsidiaries; budget that it provides for protections (“including legal services, staff dedicated to the area of protection of individuals depicted on your platform”); gross profits; audited financial statements; training manuals used by monitors; legal settlements “that you’ve paid out to the victims"; Terms of Service before the latest changes; personal tax returns of Antoon and Tassillo for the last five years; corporate tax returns for MindGeek for the last five years; comprehensive breakdown of their revenue stream; statement of “who really owns it”; and “who owns their debt.”

At this point, when the requests might have started resembling a corporate witch hunt, MP Charles Angus finally intervened to get on record that “it’s not the role of our committee to investigate an adult entertainment company” and that some semblance of privacy should be assured to those providing documents so that this would not turn into “naming and shaming.”

Feras Antoon's Opening Statement

This is the full opening statement by MindGeek CEO Feras Antoon, read before the committee at the beginning of the hearing:

Good afternoon,

My name is Feras Antoon. I am the Chief Executive Officer of Les Entreprise MindGeek Canada. With me is David Tasillo, Chief Operations Officer, and Corey [Price], Vice President of Product Management, Video Sharing Platforms.

We are grateful to the Committee for the opportunity to speak with you today.

MindGeek is one of the largest, most well-known brands in the online adult entertainment space.

Our flagship website, Pornhub, is among the Top 5 most-visited websites on the internet. Over 12.5% of the adult Canadian population visit our website every day.

As a leader in this industry, we share the Committee's concern about the spread of unlawful content online, and about the non-consensual sharing of intimate images. It goes against everything we stand for at MindGeek and Pornhub.

When David and I joined MindGeek in 2008, our goal was to create the most inclusive and safe adult community on the Internet. It was designed to celebrate freedom of expression, to value privacy, and to empower adults from all walks of life. We knew this could only be possible if safety and security was our top priority.

While we have remained steadfast in our commitment to protect our users and the public, we recognize that we could have done more in the past and we must do more in future.

I want to be clear to every member of this Honourable Committee and to the Canadian public — even a single unlawful or unconsensual image on MindGeek's platforms is one too many — full stop.

We are fathers and husbands. With have over 1,800 employees with families and loved ones. We are devastated by what the victims of these heinous acts have gone through. I want to emphasize that this type of material has no place on our platform and is contrary to our values and our business model. We are sickened when anyone attempts to abuse our platforms to further their violence. Fortunately, the vast majority of attempts by criminals to use our platform for illicit materials are stopped.

Before I speak about the steps we have taken to combat unlawful content on our platform, let me first tell you a bit more about MindGeek and how we operate.

MindGeek's flagship video sharing platform is Pornhub. Created in 2007, Pornhub is a leading free, ad-supported, adult content hosting and streaming website, offering visitors the ability to view content uploaded by verified users, individual content creators and third-party studios.

Demand for MindGeek's content rivals that of some of the largest social media platforms. For example, in 2020, Pornhub averaged over 4 million unique user sessions per day in Canada alone. In 2020 over 30% of our Canadian visitors were women — roughly 1.3 million Canadian women visit the site every day.

Running one of the world's most visited websites is a responsibility that we do not take lightly.

The spread of non-consensual and CSAM content is a massive challenge facing all social media platforms. The U.S.-based National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (also known as NCMEC) — the industry standard for reporting CSAM — says that they received 16.9 million referrals from tech companies about the possible child abuse, with well over 90 % of those related to a single social media platform. MindGeek is a proud partner of NCMEC and reports every instance of CSAM when we are aware of it, so that this information can be disseminated to and investigated by authorities across the globe.

We share the objectives reflected in the 11 Voluntary Principles, developed by governments including Canada to fight online sexual exploitation and abuse.

We have been leading this fight by being more vigilant in our moderation than almost any other platform — both within and outside of the adult space.

Today, only professional studios and verified users and creators — whose personal identity and date of birth have been confirmed by MindGeek — may upload content. This means every piece of content on our websites can be traced back to its uploader, whose identity and location is known to us. We are the first and only major social media platform — adult or non-adult— to introduce this policy. We hope and expect that the entire social media industry will follow our lead.

We are also working to ensure that once content is removed, it can never make its way back to our platform — or any platform. The re-victimization of individuals when their content is re-uploaded causes profound injury that we are working fiercely to prevent. We are tackling this problem in two ways: First, our people are trained to remove such material upon request. Second, we digitally fingerprint any content removed from our website so it cannot be re-uploaded to our own platforms.

For the last two years, we have been building a tool called SafeGuard to help fight the distribution of non-consensual intimate images. As I sit before you today, I am pleased to report that this month we will be implementing SafeGuard for all videos uploaded to Pornhub. We will offer SafeGuard, for free, to our non-adult peers including Facebook, YouTube and Reddit. We are optimistic that all major social media platforms will implement SafeGuard and contribute to its fingerprint database. Such cooperation will be a major step to limit the spread of non-consensual material on the internet.

Mr. Chair, thank you for the opportunity to discuss MindGeek's commitment to trust and safety, including our work to stamp out CSAM and non-consensual material on our platforms and on the internet as a whole. We look forward to answering the Committee’s questions. Thank you.

Main Image: MP Charlie Angus

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