‘How do you sleep at night?’ Canadian Pornhub execs grilled by MPs over child exploitation
Photos from ParlVu

‘How do you sleep at night?’ Canadian Pornhub execs grilled by MPs over child exploitation

“They really need to look at themselves in the mirror, because they’re prioritizing money and content over actual human beings’ lives.”

Those were the words of a young woman whose own life had been torn apart by the “staggering level of recklessness” – as one MP put it – of a group of Canadian executives.

They run the giant multinational pornography empire built around the Pornhub website.  

Serena Fleites testified four days before them, in front of a House of Commons ethics committee, but wanted the three men to know what they had done to her.


Serena Fleites told MPs about how an intimate video of her posted on Pornhub while she was underage destroyed her life.


She was 14 when a private video sent to a boyfriend was posted on Pornhub. Millions of views later, her life was shattered. 

She spoke to decision makers on February 1, at the Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics (ETHI). 

Her appearance before Canadian parliamentarians followed a year that saw unprecedented levels of public outrage directed at Pornhub and its parent company, Montreal-based MindGeek, after numerous stories were made public of videos of rape, human trafficking, child pornography and other non-consensual content being made available and monetized on the site. 

The Trafficking Hub campaign was launched with the explicit goal of getting the site shut down and has garnered close to 2.2 million signatures on a petition

On International Women’s Day, protesters gathered outside the Montreal headquarters of MindGeek, demanding the site be taken down. A number of MPs sent a joint letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau requesting the federal government take action to investigate the claims against Pornhub hosting illegal material and the company’s failure to remove this content when asked to do so. 

Now, the ETHI committee has been tasked with determining whether Pornhub, and other content sharing platforms like it, are following Canadian law including child pornography sections of the Criminal Code which make it illegal to create and distribute child pornography. 

These platforms have a legal obligation to report all potential incidents of criminal activity depicted on their site to the authorities. 



The Pointer's reporting on the Pornhub issue from June 2020



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“I have never seen a situation where there was so much disregard and indifference to what was obviously child pornography, rape, trafficking content, illegal content on this site,” said Fleites’s lawyer Michael Bowe during his testimony. Bowe works with the Manhattan-based firm Brown Rudnick. “I have no question under American law there are criminal violations here.”

Over the course of the past year, Pornhub and MindGeek have steadfastly denied these allegations. When The Pointer reported on the potential presence of child pornography videos on the site in June, a spokesperson said Pornhub maintains a “steadfast commitment” to removing all illegal content. 

In December, an article in the New York Times Opinion section, which included Serena’s story, accelerated the fire of controversy swirling around Pornhub into an inferno. Only days after the Times story was published, Visa, Mastercard and Discover blocked customers from using their credit cards on the website. Aside from advertisers like Unilever, or the Dollar Shave Club which had pulled ads from the site because of the controversy, this marked the first time a major financial player took any action to distance itself from the company and the stomach-turning allegations levelled against it. At the same time, Pornhub finally announced a new verification process which would only allow identified users to upload content, and deleted close to 10 million videos from the site that were posted by unverified accounts. 

Last week’s committee hearings in Ottawa marked the first time Pornhub’s top executives, CEO Feras Antoon and COO David Tassillo, addressed the ongoing controversy. 

“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 have to do more in the future,” Antoon told the committee in his opening remarks on February 5. “I want to be clear to every member of this honourable committee and to the Canadian public, even a single unlawful or non-consensual image on MindGeek’s platforms is one too many. Full stop.”



His colleague agreed. “At a personal level, I’m obviously horrified by even one instance of this going wrong,” Tassillo said. “It’s why we put so much effort into constantly upgrading our systems and if you took a snapshot of an evolution of our policies at any given time, compared to 12 months later, you’d be like, ‘wow, we’ve come so far’.”

Evidence suggests the two executives were being far from genuine.

Several members of the committee questioned the executives’ sincerity, noting that it was oddly coincidental that it was only after the New York Times report on December 4 was published that Pornhub made any effort to remove unverified content. Then, on February 2, one day after Serena’s testimony, Pornhub put out another release detailing a series of further changes being made to their content moderation efforts, including banning downloads and expanding their moderation efforts, the “recently launched” Trusted Flagger Program, which allows non-profits to flag content that violates the Terms of Service, and the news of a soon to be released “transparency report” detailing its content moderation results from 2020.

“Much like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and other tech platforms, Pornhub seeks to be fully transparent about the content that should and should not appear on the platform. This report will be the first of its kind among adult content platforms, setting the standard for transparency and accountability in the industry,” the statement reads. 

“Why did MindGeek wait until December 2020, after global condemnation, after threats from payment processors to take these actions?” asked Shannon Stubbs (CPC-Lakeland). 

“I respectfully disagree with that, I think it’s been a constant evolution,” Tassillo said. “Since 2008 we made human moderation available on our sites when it was a word that didn’t even exist, when Facebook, or any of the other main platforms in the world, never used it.”

“Is it fair to say…if these changes were put in place years ago, that (Serena’s) instance wouldn’t have happened and GirlsDoPorn wouldn’t have happened, and young women principally who have been victimized on your site wouldn’t have been victimized on your site,” asked Nathaniel Erskine-Smith (Lib-Beaches-East York).

In the GirlsDoPorn case, in January of last year, a judge ordered a California company to pay $13 million to 22 young women who filed a class action lawsuit saying they were tricked into doing pornography. The ruling states that the company behind the GirlsDoPorn videos earned millions of dollars by fooling the women, many of whom believed they were responding to ads for modelling jobs.  The owners of the video channel are also facing criminal charges for sex trafficking. Despite promises to remove them, and the proven evidence that these videos depict the abuse and rape of human trafficking victims, GirlsDoPorn videos were still being found on Pornhub months later.

Other evidence suggests Pornhub has routinely ignored requests to take down content or has simply put videos up again, shortly after taking them down.

Antoon disagreed with Erskine-Smith’s assertion that recent changes were finally made in response to the growing backlash. 

“We have always been improving our procedures. Yes, our system is not perfect, but any other video sharing platform, adult or non-adult just recently, two weeks ago, a publicly traded video sharing platform got sued by somebody-”

“That’s not an answer to my question, Mr. Antoon, I said do you think these people would have been victimized if you had the December 2020 changes in place earlier?” Erskine-Smith, asked again. 

“We can always improve and we can always do better,” Antoon replied.

“I think that’s a no,” Erkskine-Smith said. 


MP Nathaniel Erskine-Smith (Lib-Beaches-East York)


The reports of videos depicting rape, human trafficking, torture, and other non-consensual content on Pornhub have grown in number over the last year. 

In Serena’s case, she sent to a boyfriend a video of herself undressing while both of them were in middle school. It eventually ended up on Pornhub and spread rapidly across her school, and to neighbouring schools.

The video, “13-year-old brunette shows off for the camera”, destroyed her life. 

Pornhub executives stated that any terms related to child pornography are banned on the site and can not be used in titles or tags for videos. As part of its recent announcement of new measures, Pornhub is expanding this list. Tassillo says it currently includes over 1,000 terms and numerous “risky” terms that could potentially signal underage or illegal content depending on context. 

Laila Mickelwait, the founder of the Trafficking Hub says this list does not go far enough and continues to fail in stopping the publishing of Child Sexual Abuse Material (CSAM). 

She described terms that were commonly used to avoid detection by moderators or authorities that comb websites for illegal content.

“They (Pornhub) suggested to users search terms like ‘middle schoolers’, ‘middle schools sex’ and even featured titles with ‘CP’ (child pornography) ‘young teen’ and ‘not 18’ in the title and tags,” she told The Pointer. “There is an abundance of documented comments from pedophile users who loved videos featuring underage abuse content and who were looking for more. Not only that but there is evidence Pornhub was using the data of known and reported CSAM videos to drive traffic to the site.”

The Pornhub executives say this is no longer the case.

Once others saw Serena’s video, she started being harassed by boys who attempted to blackmail her into sexual acts, threatening they would share the video with her family and friends. She started skipping school, taking drugs, and went from being an honours student to barely passing any of her classes. 

“Even on the days I did attend school, I would just hide in the bathroom stall for most of the day, or try to leave if I could,” she told the committee members. 

She described a lengthy, repetitive process to try and remove the video from Pornhub. 

Pretending to be her mother, Serena messaged Pornhub about her video, telling them she was underage and she wanted it removed. Serena says it took over a week for the site to respond to her email, and a further two weeks after that for it to eventually be removed. 

Pornhub states that once a video is flagged as child pornography, it is “fingerprinted” with software that scans new uploads for matches to previously banned material. Pornhub also states it uses CSAI Match, a propietary technology also used by YouTube to identify child sexual abuse material; Content Safety API, an arifiticial intelligence that helps detect illegal images; and PhotoDNA, a Microsoft software that helps find and remove known CSAM. 

Despite this, Serena’s video was reposted to Pornhub a week later. 

In repeated attempts to get it removed, Serena said she was asked to provide a picture of herself holding a piece of photo identification. She said she did this multiple times, with multiple different forms of identification. 

When asked about this by members of the ETHI committee, both Tassillo and Antoon claimed they have yet to find any record of Serena contacting Pornhub.

Antoon claimed that the first time they heard Serena’s name was ahead of the article being published in the New York Times, and were only provided her first and last name. 

“I'm not saying she’s not saying the truth, please do not misunderstand me, I’m just saying that with a first name and a last name, it’s impossible to know if she’s contacted us,” Antoon said. 

Charlie Angus (NDP-Timmins-James Bay) was shocked by this revelation. 

“I would assume that it would be fairly straightforward in your records, because we’re talking about criminal activity,” he said. “Under your legal obligations in Canada that when a company becomes aware of content that is hosted on its service, must report that to the police, do you have a record of reporting anything from that time to the police, of a 13-year-old girl who said that her images were being used on your site? You would have a police report wouldn’t you?”



“There’s an insinuation that the information isn’t available,” Tassillo replied. “We might have records of this, we’ve never said she is lying, we just don’t know.” 

It remains unclear whether a police report was filed in response to Serena’s case. An internet service provider’s (ISP) failure to report suspected instances of CSAM can result in fines of up to $50,000 and two years in jail. 

Angus also took issue with part of Pornhub’s terms of service which state that those with complaints about criminal behaviour must take it up with the courts in Cyprus. 

“You are here in Canada, I’m concerned you think you could avoid the law here, especially if we’re talking about child abuse and non-consensual acts,” he said, adding that forcing victims to travel to the Mediterranean island of Cyprus puts a massive barrier up for victims looking for justice. 

“To be honest, I would have to get back to you on that and ask legal counsel,” Antoon said. “But clearly we are living in Canada, we abide by Canadian law for sure.”

Oddly, Pornhub’s Terms of Service read differently. The Terms were most recently updated on December 8, 2020, and read: “The relationship between you and us shall be governed by the laws of Cyprus, without regard to conflict of law rules. Nothing contained in these Terms of Service shall constitute an agreement to the application of the laws of any other nation to the Websites,” the terms read. “The sole and exclusive jurisdiction and venue for any action or proceeding arising out of or related to these Terms of Service shall be in an appropriate court located in Limassol, Cyprus. You hereby submit to the jurisdiction and venue of said Courts.”

Tassillo and Antoon were also asked about other incidents reported widely in the media, including the story of Rose Kalemba, who was taken at knifepoint about 10 years ago and raped for 12 hours when she was 14-years-old. The videos were posted to Pornhub. Kalemba pleaded with the company to take the videos down, but says she was ignored. Only after posing as a lawyer did Pornhub take down the video, she says. 

When asked, neither of the top executives were able to say how many complaints regarding underage content were received in 2020 or the years prior, nor were they able to say how many had been shared with the National Centre for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC). The pair stated they report all instances of suspected CSAM to the authorities. 

“I’m astounded that you would come here and claim to be world leaders in child protection,” said Arnold Viersen (CPC-Peace River-Westlock). “Have you, or your organization ever apologized to these children or women who have been exploited on your site?”

“In any incidents where we can tell that we’re doing wrongdoing we 100 percent would, but as an individual I feel horrible, but as a corporation we are uncertain,” Tassillo said. 



According to Bowe, Serena’s lawyer, the evidence is clear, and when the full story comes out, all of Pornhub’s claims regarding the lengths it takes to remove and keep this content off the site will turn out to be nothing but, “a bunch of BS.”

Bowe, testifying under oath, said he and his law firm have been investigating Pornhub for close to a year, and have heard hundreds of accounts of underage women, and adult woman who were raped or trafficked and the videos ended up on Pornhub including: 


  • A 15-year-old who was raped and had the video posted on Pornhub. The site refused to take the video down for three weeks, and even after they said it was removed, it remained online for a further two months, garnering hundreds of thousands of additional views. 

  • A child younger than 10 who was sold into sex trafficking and made the subject of child pornography videos for nearly 10 years with videos published on MindGeek platforms.

  • A 15-year-old who was secretly filmed through a webcam hack then blackmailed into doing further videos. The videos were posted on Pornhub with her personal information, which led to long-term abuse and stalking. 


“These are not isolated incidents, it’s a real problem,” Bowe said. 

Bowe testified that CSAM and other non-consensual forms of content are baked into Pornhub’s business model. Among “tube” sites, the main goal is to attract visitors, and to do that, you want to have successful search engine optimization (SEO) to land at the top of Google search results. 

“The more content you have, the more titles you have, the more search terms you have, the more tags you have, all of that is gold for optimization,” Bowe said. “As soon as you try to police and filter the content on your site you start losing content on your site.”

Mickelwait says she has spoken with former moderators of Pornhub who have backed up this assertion. 

“Whistleblower moderators have said they were told to allow as much content on the site as possible. More content means more traffic and more money. One moderator in fact told me that MindGeek management ‘didn’t care’ if a video was of an underage teen,” she said. 

MindGeek’s website highlights how the company provides expert services in SEO. 

Antoon and Tassillo disputed this description of their business model, claiming that the presence of CSAM and other non-consensual material on their site actually hurts their business model. 

“Child abuse material has no place on our platform and makes us lose money,” Antoon said, claiming it hurts the “Pornhub brand”. 

“It has the trust of its users. When four million Canadians that come to Pornhub daily, see this disgusting kind of material, they lose trust and faith in us,” he said. “With every view, a user leaves forever.”

It’s unclear how Antoon came to this determination and no numbers were provided to illustrate lost users on the site. The MindGeek corporation, which includes many of the world’s biggest porn websites and producers, boasts its websites receive 115 million daily visitors.

Pornhub is not alone in dealing with the presence of CSAM and other illegal content on its web platforms, something Tassillo and Antoon were quick to point out during their testimony.  

A recent report from the Canadian Centre for Child Protection (C3P) found that most popular web platforms lack content reporting functions specific to CSAM. 

“Survivors surveyed by C3P have generally characterized their own experience reporting CSAM online as disheartening; exceedingly long delays in responding to their complaints, moderators challenging victims on the veracity of their report, or, as is often the case, no response at all,” the November 2020 report reads. 

In several areas, the report found that Pornhub has better reporting functions than many other popular platforms. However, this should not be surprising as other platforms like Twitter (which was found to have poor CSAM reporting functions) are not specifically geared toward adult content. The C3P found that while the reporting process on Pornhub is straightforward, the requirement to provide a full name and email address can dissuade victims from reporting content if they do not want to be associated with it.

“We take this extremely seriously, I know it just sounds like words because this is the first time the committee and everyone has heard us right? Since the beginning, since the inception of the company, we always work on different ways to make this better,” Tassillo said. “I understand the frustration you all have, but this is a problem that’s bigger than just our site. This is a problem on the internet, how people are misusing platforms.”

Marie-Helene Gaudreau (BQ-Laurentides-Labelle) vice chair of the ETHI committee, dismissed the statement, accusing the executives of minimizing the problem on their own site. 

“How do you sleep at night?” she asked. “When you think about all the parents and victims…how do you feel in that context when consumption of that material is a global phenomenon, but how do you lie with the fact that there’s been an impact on people’s lives?”


Marie-Helene Gaudreau (BQ-Laurentides-Labelle) vice chair of the ETHI committee


Antoon, while noting they feel terrible for all victims of heinous crimes, continued to defend Pornhub, his flagship product. 

“Don’t you believe that those four million Canadians every day coming to our site, if they see something so heinous and criminal like that, wouldn’t they be calling the police?” he said. “We created a very good product that I am proud of, that our 1,800 employees who have families and children are proud of.”

The two men assured the committee that videos are immediately removed after being flagged in violation of the site’s terms. Tassillo said as soon as a content removal form is filled out, the video in question is disabled and can no longer be viewed. 

“We understand that responsibility we have, we take it very seriously,” he said. However, the pair were not able to provide numbers for how many notices were received, pointing to the transparency report that is scheduled to be made public “very soon” to include all those numbers. 

The lack of information provided by the executives was frustrating to members of the parliamentary committee. 

“I also find it shocking that you would come to this public committee, after now that it has been in the public, and we as members of parliament know without a shadow of a doubt that content of child sexual abuse material and non-consensual material and human trafficking material has been present on at least one of your, at least, 48 subsidiaries. How could you come to this committee and not actually know your terms of service and not be able to answer those questions is mind boggling to me,” MP Stubbs said. 

The lack of information and deflection — even labelling the allegations as conspiracy theory — have been commonplace in Pornhub’s response to the entire controversy, Bowe explained, noting that any time scrutiny was directed at the company, they refused to acknowledge the problem. It instead conducted gas-lighting campaigns against the victims who came forward and attempted to deflect the issue and blame it on other things.

As part of The Pointer’s initial story on Pornhub in June, a spokesperson for the company labelled Exodus Cry, the group behind the Trafficking Hub petition a “radical rightwing fundamentalist group.” In an interview, provided to a media outlet in March ahead of the International Women’s Day Protest, the spokesperson said Exodus Cry’s founders “have long vilified and attacked LGBTQ communities and women’s rights groups, aligned themselves with hate groups, and espoused extremist and despicable language.”

Exodus Cry dismissed the allegations as “completely false.”

“To say that this was conspiracy theory, I think it a real disrespect to the families who have gone through this,” Angus said on Friday. 



The pair of executives were confronted with recent reporting published in the Globe and Mail on Feb. 4, a day before their presence at the committee, which detailed allegations by two former “formatters” with Pornhub who claimed they were discouraged by managers from reporting videos that contained what they thought was illegal content. 

“I mean, media articles are not facts, it’s journalists writing whatever they want,” Antoon said when the allegations in the Globe’s reporting were put to him. 

For Erskine-Smith, the response did not fit with Antoon’s previous comments. 

“If I was the CEO of a company, and I was very concerned about any single instance of harmful content on my platform, I might have taken this a little bit more seriously,” Erskine-Smith said. “You’re so committed to trust and safety, your response to an article like that is to shrug your shoulders and say journalists make up anything?”



Antoon called the Globe’s reporting “completely unfactual” noting that formatters do not review content, and the story is “a perfect example of a journalist not understanding who they’ve interviewed.”

Piggybacking on Erskine-Smith’s comments, MP Viersen asked about the journalism of the UK Sun-Times, which reported on dozens of illegal videos being present on the site over the course of three years. 

“Every time we see this types of reports, we reach out to the journalist and ask for more information in order to help us remove this content,” Antoon said. “That journalist himself could have easily flagged that content with just one click of a button. They did not flag it, they did not submit information to us, so today, I don’t have this information.”

Angus said he was “gobsmacked” the Pornhub CEO would dismiss the Globe’s allegations so quickly. 

“When you come here and tell us how much you care about the victims, it strikes me Mr. Antoon that you show a staggering level of recklessness that has just been made apparent here,” he said. “You’ve had three months to investigate this (Serena’s case) and you show up at our committee and say sorry, we haven’t found anything…I think sir, you are extremely negligent and we’re talking about possible criminal acts.”

No future meetings of the ETHI committee have been scheduled to date, but on Twitter, Angus said he would be pushing for more testimony. 

“We need answers to allegations as to whether there was a corporate culture that ignored abusive, illegal, non-consensual content,” he tweeted.



Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @JoeljWittnebel 

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