Pornhub: Canadian MPs Welcome Anti-Porn Activists as Witnesses

Pornhub: Canadian MPs Welcome Anti-Porn Activists as Witnesses

OTTAWA — The Canadian House of Commons’ Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics held its third meeting today regarding MindGeek's content moderation, with testimony by three alleged subjects of illegal videos, followed by presentations by a Canadian law enforcement expert, a Canadian domestic violence advocate and two U.S. witnesses: Manhattan liability lawyer Michael Bowe, and leading anti-porn activist Laila Mickelwait of Exodus Cry.

Today's meeting followed two hearings earlier this month: the first presenting the testimony of Serena Fleites, the main subject of Nicholas Kristof’s December 4 New York Times article “The Children of Pornhub,” and her attorney, Michael Bowe, and the second featuring an interrogation of MindGeek executives, including its two top operational officers, Feras Antoon and David Tassillo.

The attitude of the Canadian MPs between those two meetings could not have provided a bigger contrast. On February 1, the MPs did not challenge any of the assertions Bowe — an American corporate liability lawyer with conservative ties who has represented disgraced minister Jerry Falwell, Jr. and former President Donald Trump during his first impeachment trial — made about MindGeek.

Four days later, MPs from all four major parties grilled Canadian adult industry businessmen Antoon and Tassillo with a persistent presumption of their guilt and supposed deceptions.

A Tendentious Hearing Against MindGeek

Today’s hearing was even more tendentious  against Montreal-based MindGeek, with the MPs allowing three witnesses in particular — the Americans Laila Mickelwait and Bowe, plus the London, Ontario domestic violence victim’s advocate and anti-porn activist Megan Walker, to essentially run the entire second half of the hearing asserting a number of extreme moral and criminal allegations against MindGeek, their executives and employees.

This culminated in Bowe — who had not been listed as a witness and may have been representing some of the alleged victims who spoke earlier on — inserting on the record a prepared soundbite: “In America we have monsters. Harvey Weinstein. We have Epstein. MindGeek is Canada’s monster.”

Bowe then characterized MindGeek, a company he claimed he has been investigating for years, as a “bad, unaccountable, rogue company.”

The U.S.-based, religiously inspired Mickelwait was also allowed by the Canadian MPs to refer to MindGeek as “the Mafia” and to make unsupported allegations that they had “threatened” her and "journalists.”

Bowe also, in carefully worded language to avoid being cited for slander, said that the MindGeek corporate structure was something he “had never seen before” and likened it to something a law school might teach when covering “money laundering.”

The hearing adjourned with committee chair Chris Waretkin (Conservative, Alberta) — who had done nothing to stop Mickelwait and Bowe from taking over the proceedings — acknowledging that it was an unconventional way to end the meeting with "an open discussion."

Alleged Victims Speak

The almost three-hour hearing started late with three witnesses who alleged illegal videos of themselves had been uploaded to Pornhub by third parties; the witnesses claimed they had a difficult time getting the company to take them down as well as prevent re-uploads.

Vicky Galy — a paralegal from Henderson, Tennessee who specializes in liability lawsuits —  alleged that the posting on Pornhub of a sex video made by an ex-boyfriend during a trip to Vegas had so traumatized her that her life had been derailed by “trauma, great emotional distress, a dissociative condition” that “removed the memory of videos or the event” followed by “dissociative amnesia” and “reckless behavior” to “escape reality.”

Galy’s video was then allegedly uploaded by users based in Helsinki, Finland, and verified by Pornhub, according to her account.

Two other victims were not identified by name. “Guest  No. 1” — who testified behind a blank screen — said her ex-husband had taken photos and a video of her, which had been uploaded to Pornhub. She said she had no memory of making the video. “Whether I was asleep or drugged is impossible to know after the fact,” she testified, before giving account of her difficulties reaching MindGeek and convincing them to remove the video,

“Guest No. 2” was shown reading a statement, but sound difficulties made her testimony hard to understand both on video and by the MPs.

'We Need to Correct What's Going On'

The three alleged victims then answered questions from the MPs. Arnold Viersen (Conservative, Alberta), who said the testimony made him “sick,” said that in his opinion “age and consent must be verified before it goes up, and there should be a way to double-check that.”

Victoria Galy replied that, in her case, the verification of consent was not possible because when she arrived in Las Vegas she and her ex-boyfriend “went to the dispensary” and she smoked marijuana. “I believe I was drugged,” she added.

She also noted that the supposed Helsinki “verified uploaders” had “a photo of me naked to submit with my videos," but her testimony implied both that her ex-boyfriend had her pose for it, and also that the supposed Finnish catfishers had “altered it by Photoshop.” The implication was that the photo may have included her ID showing proof of age.

Stepping into the difficult issue of online identity verification, Viersen —  a social conservative most famous for trying to shame a colleague by asking her if she had been a sex worker — had no other suggestions other than “this should have never happened to you” or that legitimate adult companies should apply for “a business license” before they can upload content.

MP Han Dong (Liberal, Don Valley North), who on February 5 had seemed particularly interested in the financial records of MindGeek and its executives, said the company — which has a complex corporate structure with offices in Luxembourg and Cyprus — should not be able to “feel so protected and untouchable” and that Parliament should somehow “correct what’s going on.”

Dong claimed the company was “intentionally making the process of taking [down] the video very difficult” by requesting that those filing takedown notices provide multiple identification.

Marie-Hélène Gaudreau (Bloc Québécois, Laurentides, Labelle) reasserted an opinion she had expressed during the prior two hearings that the meetings were important to “explain and condemn what happened.”

“We sense the urgency to go forward,” Gaudreau insisted, urging that “we must act quickly,” although, like the other MPs, she was much less clear on how exactly to go about taking action while taking into consideration known issues in the tech community about moderation.

None of the witness at this or the first hearing, or any of the MPs — other than Nathaniel Erskine-Smith (Liberal, Beaches-East York), who was not present today — displayed or even claimed any specialized knowledge of technical issues, online networking or digital rights.

Gaudreau then “ceded the floor” so the witnesses could “speak to Pornhub,” and “Guest No. 1” and “Guest No. 2” took the opportunity to call them “liars.”

'This is Like a Court'

Charlie Angus (NDP, Timmins, James Bay) — a folksy former broadcaster, from the sometimes left-leaning populist third anglophone party — told the witnesses that “as a father, I can’t even imagine the trauma you’ve gone through.”

But in one of the most transparent moments of this tendentious series of hearings, Angus then made a startling admission.

“This is like a court, in a way,” Angus said. “We need to gather evidence." Further, he stressed that the testimony of the MindGeek executives was “the same as testifying under oath.”

The problem with this admission is that, at no point in the hearings, was MindGeek, Pornhub or its execs treated even remotely with the expectation of innocence, as they would have been in an actual court of law.

The MPs — from all political forces on the Canadian spectrum — accepted every testimony against MindGeek and Pornhub as fact, and were openly, visibly hostile to any explanations that Antoon and Tassillo might have volunteered.

Angus, in particular, kept asking leading questions from witnesses, much like an aggressive prosecutor on a political TV drama (e.g., “You’re talking about the thumbnail image of your abuse, right?”) and his assumption that MindGeek was culpable permeated every statement.

This was no more evident than when he tried to make Victoria Galy — who is currently suing MindGeek for their alleged failure to remove her video — admit that the supposedly nefarious company "forced" her to "send pictures of [herself].”

Galy herself corrected him, saying, “They never told me that I had to submit that. It was a verified model because someone else was claiming it. It was in my own desperation that I had prepared a PowerPoint presentation, initially for the police department, in an attempt to get them to listen.”

“I voluntarily did that,” she explained, denying Angus another pseudo-prosecutorial “gotcha” moment.

'Michael Bowe: Crusader Profile'

At that point, committee chair Waretkin called on Michael Bowe, who was never formally introduced as a witness but was apparently part of the hearings. Waretkin wanted to know about MindGeek’s liability under American law for a U.S.-based plaintiff like Galy.

Bowe did not directly answer the question, instead launching into a tirade against MindGeek and displaying apparent shock about “their international corporate structure of shell companies.”

“If you were to teach a class on ‘money laundering [and] shielding,’ you would be looking at this structure,” he said.

Bowe described MindGeek’s structure as “designed to be hard to know” even for “lawyers who practice for 30 years.”

Bowe describes himself in his official professional bio as having “almost 30 years of experience successfully litigating virtually every type of high-stakes business and personal case, on both the plaintiff and defense side, and at both the trial and appellate level.” He also brags to “having navigated to safety many companies and high net worth individuals facing serious criminal and regulatory jeopardy.”

During Trump’s 2017 impeachment trial, Bowe was added to the team based on that expertise. He also represented Fox News anchor Eric Bolling following media reports that claimed Bolling sent sexually inappropriate text messages.

Bowe, the man who started his February 1 testimony denying that there was any religious component to the campaign against Pornhub, was profiled by his alma mater’s magazine, Bergen Catholic, for his commitment to religious causes in a regular section called “Crusader Profile”

The name of the piece is “Michael Bowe: Crusader Profile.”

State Moderators

After a brief recess, Committee Chair Warkentin called in three more witnesses, including an actual anti-porn crusader: Laila Mickelwait, from religiously motivated group Exodus Cry.

Pre-hearing notices referred to the Riverside, California-raised Mickelwait as a “human trafficking advocate,” although her qualifications beyond her single-minded crusade against Pornhub appear questionable.

Mickelwait was introduced by Waretkin as the leader of “the #Traffickinghub movement.”

The other two speakers during the second half of the hearing were François (Francis) Fortin, a criminology academic at the Université de Montréal, and Megan Walker, the executive director of the Abused Women’s Centre in London, Ontario.

Of all the witnesses during the three hearings, Fortin was the only one with actual credentials to speak about CSAM and what he called “cyber-pedophilia.” Unsurprisingly, his contributions were substantially more measured than the generalizations and shock tactics of Mickelwait and Bowe and the outright calls for censorship of “the entire pornography industry” by Walker.

Fortin was first invited to offer his opinion and he laid out an analysis based on possible solutions and compliance; support for victims; and prevention and research.

Fortin, who works closely with Canadian law enforcement, explained that when online material comes into question there are two different approaches to adopt: clear images of minors are “fast-tracked” for removal, but in cases involving an allegedly non-consensual image of an adult, there is a “gray area” and police encourage victims to pursue a civil solution.

The criminologist acknowledged that leaving it up to the victim “to take steps themselves” is “problematic” and leads to frustration, particularly in cases of “revenge porn.”

But like other speakers, Fortin was also less clear as to how to address this problem.

He spoke of "accountability on the part of adult content providers" and improving the system of “digital signatures of content in a number of ways.” One of his proposals would be to establish large “data banks of images of child pornography and digital fingerprinting” where it “should be possible to share all those images with all those platforms.”

Another solution, Fortin conjectured, would be to develop a system of “trusted content providers” where “new subscribers [providers] would have to go through a [verification] process.”

None of Fortin’s proposals are much different from what the adult industry — and mainstream platforms — have already tried to implement. The only difference is that Fortin would like the State (or the police) to provide the moderation.

“There should be an operating license, with compliance requirements that companies have to follow in order to operate,” he said. And perhaps “an ombudsman of some kind” to be “mobilized as soon as there’s nonconsensual content on a platform” to perform “quick analysis and make a call.”

This proposed system of “state moderators” does not take into account the sheer quantity of data circulating online.

Laila Mickelwait Presents Her Case

Then came the turn of Mickelwait’s main presentation, which she preceded with a trigger warning.

The Exodus Cry spokesperson used most of her time reading long lists she had compiled: harrowing descriptions of anonymous victims that she claimed had confided their ordeals to her, followed by a revoltingly explicit litany of video titles that she claimed to have found on Pornhub.

With determination and zeal, Mickelwait entered into the Canadian Parliamentary record a stream of graphic descriptives that she had carefully selected from Pornhub, without a pause, and without censoring her extensive list as she repeated the N-word in full.

Mickelwait moved on to bundling horrific scenarios together with stories of people “forced in a life of pornography as a child.” In passing, she mentioned that MindGeek — or any other porn site — “had no way of confirming anyone’s age or consent,” which is the Trojan Horse of the #Traffickinghub campaign to outlaw all pornography.

“I could go on and on,” she said. “Children now have personally reached out to me,” she claimed, expanding into an assertion that “child sexual abuse has made its way into Pornhub in a significant way.”

Mickelwait finally brought up the issue of “monetization,” adding that the company only employed 10 moderators to review content, per shift, in Cyprus, for all MindGeek sites, and ended her presentation claiming to speak on behalf of “two million people in 192 countries,” and hundreds of organizations.

Regulating 'A Predatory Industry'

The third formal presentation was by Megan Walker, the executive director of the Abused Women’s Centre in London, Ontario.

Walker immediately started making statements that went beyond the issue of Pornhub’s content moderation into a condemnation of pornography in general.

She claimed to have helped “143 victims who report that technology was used in their assault” and “64 reported that pornography was prevalent in their relationship” and that their abusers “made them play-act porn scenes.”

Walker went on to characterize these victims as “victims of pornography” and stressed that “they don’t have responsibility to feel shame or suicidal thoughts.”

“Shame belongs to the abuser, to Pornhub and MindGeek,” she added.

Pornhub, Walker claimed, “has actively participated in [allowing for] the downloading of these videos” before praising Nicholas Kristof’s New York Times article.

She called the MindGeek executives “complicit” and said that although they may be fathers or grandfathers, “they don’t care about the lives of women and girls.”

Walker then expanded her condemnation of all porn, claiming that the category “fetish porn” should be criminalized and that no moderation of content is actually possible.

“Only a team of forensic pediatricians can ‘age’ a girl,” she said. “Not a team of moderators.”

None of the adult industry, or Pornhub, she claimed, “would be possible without the exploitation of children and women."

“I am not a lawyer,” she admitted, even as she proposed making all MindGeek businesses, its CEO and COO criminally liable in Canada and internationally.

Finally, she offered four proposals to enter into the record:

  • Robust funding made available to support all victims
  • Criminal prosecution by sending witness statements to the police for a criminal investigation
  • New laws regulating porn: Parliament needs to legislate the end of self-regulation of the pornography industry. This should be done by a third party, not affiliated with the pornography industry, which should be retained to verify age and consent. Cut all credit card payments for all the pornography industry until this third party body is appointed
  • Criminal investigation into the finances and ownership of MindGeek

“It is the role of government to regulate all industries — predatory industries, especially the porn industry," Walker concluded. "We need to regulate the production and consumption related to that industry.”

'Safe Rooms, Gaslighting and the Mafia'

What then followed was the MPs repeatedly asking anti-porn crusader Mickelwait, liability lawyer Bowe and the other witnesses about how Canada can rewrite their internet moderation laws.

Shannon Stubbs (Conservative, Alberta) kept asking Mickelwait — to whom she spoke with particular reverence — to lobby the committee with the Exodus Cry talking points.

“Thank you for your advocacy,” Stubbs gushed. “Laila — I’m open to any other additional policy or legal remedies you recommend.”

Mickelwait was also asked if she wanted to say anything about how MindGeek was reacting to her campaign.

MindGeek were “liars” and “intentionally misleading,” Mickelwait said. The company had “harassed” her and others, including victims and journalists. They were engaged in “abuse and doxxing.”

Mickelwait alleged people had been “blackmailed, intimidated into silence and physically attacked” by shadowy MindGeek forces. She claimed that “journalists from Europe and Canada attempted to cover the issue before the New York Times” but were somehow silenced — even though, since March 2020, the #Traffickinghub campaign has been covered internationally, and the Kristof article had led to her  appearance in front of the committee.

“A porn producer told me they are 'the MindGeek mafia,'" she said, adding that she was considering getting “a safe room” to protect herself.

The final gift to Mickelwait’s agenda was provided by the avuncular Charles Angus, who openly mocked MindGeek’s Antoon and Tassillo for sending a letter to the committee members pointing out Mickelwait’s religious activism with Exodus Cry, and her work alongside Benjamin Nolot.

After Angus’ dismissive tone regarding valid questions about her mission, when asked about Exodus Cry and Nolot’s documented history of anti-LGBTQ and anti-choice activism, Mickelwait refused to answer the question.

“This is standard procedure for them,” she said. "[They] distract, defame, discredit those who are telling the truth.”

“I gave you testimony of survivors,” she continued. “These are their words. Documented, screenshotted. These are not opinions, these are facts. They try to attack, harass, quiet and silence advocates.”

“Are they gaslighting you?” a concerned Angus asked.

“Absolutely, absolutely,” Mickelwait agreed.

Main Image: Anti-porn activist Laila Mickelwait (Exodus Cry) at today’s Canada House of Commons hearing

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