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Can Pornhub evolve? A national security expert, bodybuilder and porn researchers are going to try

Prof. Leah West, a go-to expert at Carleton University on such subjects as national security law and counter-terrorism, will now be offering her advice on a topic that, at first glance, may seem outside her usual wheelhouse.

She is part of the advisory board of the Ottawa-based private-equity firm that recently purchased the parent company of one of the most popular, yet highly controversial, adult websites in the world: Pornhub.

“I’ve been working in the tech and human rights and law space for a while. And because I’ve been a strong advocate against sexual violence against women in the last couple of years, people who know me well, don’t find it odd,” she said.

“But if you only know my Carleton bio, it might seem a little bit strange.” 

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Leah West, who served for 10 years as an armoured officer in the Canadian military, and is now an assistant professor of international affairs at Carleton University. (Submitted by Leah West)

Others on the six-person advisory board include a bodybuilder, employment lawyer, and porn researchers. 

While they don’t actually get to make decisions at Pornhub — a fact that has critics skeptical the board will have much effect — they are still part of a daunting task: trying to make one of the most visited sites on the internet, accused of profiting off rape and sex trafficking, both “as safe as possible” and not “boring.”

The biggest player

Pornhub came under particular scrutiny following a New York Times article in Oct. 2020 by columnist Nicholas Kristol, entitled The Children of Pornhub. Kristol wrote that while many of the videos on the site are of consensual sex acts, it’s “infested with rape videos” depicting child abuse and nonconsensual violence.

“It monetizes child rapes, revenge pornography, spy cam videos of women showering, racist and misogynist content, and footage of women being asphyxiated in plastic bags,” he wrote. 

That article prompted Mastercard and Visa to cut ties with the site. At the time, Pornhub denied there was illegal content on its site, saying it employs moderators to screen every video upload. 

Meanwhile, the site has been the target of various lawsuits, including a class action suit by people who say they were victims and survivors of childhood sex trafficking and had videos and images of their childhood sex trafficking sold, managed, and/or distributed on websites.

WATCH | New York Times columnist on 2020 investigation: 

can pornhub evolve a national security expert bodybuilder and porn researchers are going to try 1

“I can’t unsee images of kids being exploited,” says New York Times columnist

2 years ago

Duration 5:22

In an exposé, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof says Pornhub, a subsidiary of Montreal-based company Mindgeek, features videos on its website depicting sexual exploitation of minors.

However West said she doesn’t see her role as dealing with some of those outstanding issues.

“Cleaning up the site or righting past wrongs, learning from the past, all of that and even I would say dispelling some myths … is really the job of the company,” she said. “I don’t really see that as the job of the advisory board.”

She did get involved with the Ottawa-based equity firm that acquired MindGeek last month because of the potential to have impact at a site with 2.5 billion visits a month.

“I’m not someone who believes that all porn is demeaning or is undermining women or feminism. My goal is to make the industry as safe as possible for all participants. And if you want to do that, you do it with the biggest player in the industry.”

Making ‘change for the better’

Among the advisors offering expertise to Ethical Capital Partners is Valerie Webber, a former performer in the adult industry and a post-doctoral researcher at Dalhousie University in pornography, sexual and public health. 

Webber says one of their goals as advisor will be to advocate that Pornhub’s content, now under intense scrutiny, won’t become “boring.”

I would like to see us relax a little bit around the content of pornography as playful and fun entertainment and that it not be judged so much more harshly than other kinds of entertainment,” they said.

“So if anything, I would be moving in that direction, that we aren’t needlessly censoring different expressions of sexuality.”

Others on the advisory board include female empowerment leader Kortney Olson, an international bodybuilder and Australian women’s arm wrestling champion whose bio includes holding a Guinness World Record for recording “the fastest time to crush three watermelons between the thighs, at 7.63 seconds.”

“If we want a better industry, we have to get involved in its governance, its rules and its content,” she said in a statement posted on Twitter that also noted Pornhub’s enormous influence.

“I’m an agitator for women’s rights to equality, equity, bodily autonomy and societal justice for ALL women,” Olson said. 

“I believe the new owners and the other remarkable women on their advisory board are doing this, like myself, to make change for the better.”

Also advising ECP are Shayna Miller, an auditor and expert on anti-money laundering processes, Toronto-based lawyer Jessyca Greenwood, and Maggie MacDonald, a PhD candidate at the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Information studying porn platforms. 

People like Webber and MacDonald were chosen, says Ottawa-based lawyer Solomon Friedman, one of the founders of Ethical Capital Partners, because of their expertise in areas of  sex work, health and safety and online adult platforms.

“We realized that we needed to engage as advisors people who are rooted in those communities and can give us advice about what has worked, what has not worked,” he said.

Board ‘somewhat meaningless’

But not everyone is impressed with the new equity firm that has taken over Pornhub or its new advisory board.

“An advisory board is somewhat meaningless in that they don’t actually make decisions,” said Laila Mickelwait, founder and CEO of the Justice Defense Fund, an anti-trafficking movement whose goal is to “hold Pornhub … accountable for enabling and profiting from the sex trafficking and criminal sexual exploitation of countless victims.”

Mickelwait questioned the board’s experience in dealing with child protection or anti-trafficking work, including the distribution of child sexual abuse material.

“There’s no sign that things will get better. Calling themselves Ethical Capital Partners, in my view, based on the facts that I’ve seen so far, is just an attempt to whitewash the crime scene. But that’s not going to work.”

A lawyer speaks to reporters outside the door of a courthouse.
Defence lawyer Solomon Friedman speaks to reporters outside the Ottawa Courthouse Feb. 23. He is one of the founders of Ethical Capital Partners, the private equity firm that bought Pornhub’s parent company MindGeek last month. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Friedman said the advisors will have free rein to do any consultations they want, and that those consultations will be made public.

“They’re completely independent. They can speak about their work with the project. The can air critiques of the platform discuss the industry in any way they want. So there’s zero control over that.”

As for criticisms of the site, Friedman says the organization takes them extremely seriously, but that many of the allegations that continue to be recycled “are dated.”

“They’re no reflection on what the current process is. And most important part about this is we recognize that threats continually evolve,” he said.

Technology an ‘untapped asset’

Another asset they were looking for in advisors, said Friedman, was expertise to recognize that some of Pornhub’s technology to detect nefarious content is a great untapped asset and that the potential of Mindgeek goes well beyond adult content.

“Our thesis is that the stigma has kept very valuable resources away from the mainstream. The only way to unlock that potential is to bring in subject matter experts.”

West said she sees an opportunity for the company to become a member of the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism, an organization that seeks to prevent terrorists and violent extremists from exploiting digital platforms.

“That’s something that I’ll be advocating for and advising on,” she said.

But she also sees that Pornhub’s detection content technology could possibly be used elsewhere, like in dealing with extremist online content.

“There’s so much opportunity here,” she said. 

For Webber, they will be looking to ensure the company’s putting porn performer interests at the forefront.

“If they are interested in moving toward protecting sex worker rights, protecting performer rights, then I’m very interested in being a part of that,” Webber said.

Webber said they are also concerned about verification requirements that require performers to submit to biometric face scans, or submit personal information, which can put privacy and safety at risk and not actually prevent harm.

“You can get all of the paperwork and face scans you want from people who are still not consenting. It doesn’t address the real problem,” Webber said.

MacDonald, the PHD student, said that first and foremost, one of the most important goals of the board is to change the public’s understanding of porn, that it doesn’t equal child trafficking but does represent “the bulk of our sexual expression on the internet” and is a “very legitimate workforce.”

“We are at the forefront of sexual expression and sexual freedom of expression of rights. And I think that ECP is really positioning themselves to own it … instead of dodging it.”

WATCH | Dozens of women sue company behind Pornhub [2021] 

can pornhub evolve a national security expert bodybuilder and porn researchers are going to try 3

Company behind PornHub sued by victims of sexual abuse

2 years ago

Duration 1:55

Dozens of women are suing the Montreal company behind Pornhub, one of the most visited websites in the world. None of the allegations have been proven in court, but the lawsuit alleges the company is run like an “organized crime family” and profits off the exploitation of women.

MacDonald acknowledged that PornHub did a poor job defending itself following the New York Times article.

“The New York Times publishes an article … accusing a company of child trafficking and [the] response is to stay in the shadows and stay on your back heel? Their public reputation just crumbled,” she said.

“Anyone who is even loosely involved in this industry …. can see that they were just dropping the ball. They were trying to dodge accountability. But you can’t dodge some of the spotlight shining directly on you.”

She also believes that Pornhub historically could have been doing so much more to moderate and that prior to the NYT article, their moderation practices were “pretty sloppy.”

Yet MacDonald said Pornhub was just like any other platform.

“They’re only going to do the bare minimum that’s required.”

Front Burner23:38The problems with Pornhub

Pornhub, the Montreal-based streaming giant, is in trouble. They’ve dumped millions of videos from their platform, Visa and Mastercard have cut ties with the company, and they’re facing questions from Canadian MPs. This all happened after a recent New York Times article which exposed the platform’s insidious problem of hosting videos of rape, child abuse and sex trafficking — sometimes even after victims asked for the videos to be taken down. But porn performers say that while they also want to fight abuse and non-consensual content on the platform, they’re now becoming collateral damage in the rush to tackle this serious issue — and that could affect their livelihoods and their safety. Today, we’re speaking to Melissa Gira Grant, a staff writer at The New Republic and the author of Playing the Whore: The Work of Sex Work, about the changes shaking one of the world’s biggest porn sites, and why sex workers say they need to be included in the conversation.

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