Pornhub faces bipartisan scrutiny, calls for investigation amid trafficking concerns

Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle are criticizing the adult video giant Pornhub amid concerns about its alleged role in perpetuating sex trafficking on the internet.

“Pornhub’s failure to remove nonconsensual pornography from its website is destroying lives," Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., said in a statement provided to Fox News on Tuesday. "I’ve spoken with many survivors who have been driven from careers, fields of study, and lost family and loved ones due to this insidious practice. In the worst cases, people have been driven to suicide."

Speier's comment came just a day after Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., sent a letter to Attorney General William Barr requesting an investigation into the company. Sasse pointed to a slew of high-profile incidents involving sexual exploitation on the platform, including a case from last year in which Florida police arrested a man on charges of sex crimes against an underage girl who was missing for nearly a year before her mother learned that 60 pornographic videos of her had been posted to Pornhub, Snapchat, Periscope, and ModelHub.

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"[T]hese publicized cases clearly represent just the tip of the iceberg of women and children being exploited in videos on Pornhub," said Sasse in the letter, going on to accuse the platform -- which received 42 billion visits in 2019 -- of partaking in a "disturbing pipeline of exploiting children and other victims and survivors of sex trafficking."

Speier argued that a DOJ investigation would be a good "first step," but not enough. Congresss, she said, needs to pass her Stopping Harmful Image Exploitation and Limiting Distribution (SHIELD) Act, which she said would impose "criminal penalties for posting nonconsensual pornography on sites like Pornhub."

The office of Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, who previously sponsored anti-sex trafficking legislation, also expressed concern about the potential for illegal activity on Pornhub.

“Rob is concerned about the continued potential sex trafficking happening on this website and will continue to work to ensure that no more men, women, or children fall victim to this terrible crime," spokesperson Meghan Dugan told Fox News on Tuesday. Portman's legislation, titled the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act, became law in 2018 and outlaws companies from knowingly assisting or facilitating sex trafficking.

“During his confirmation hearing, Attorney General Barr told me that he would make combating sex trafficking a Department of Justice priority," Sasse told Fox News. "This is pretty obvious: Any company that profits from rape, trafficking, and exploitation of women and children must be held accountable."

Pornhub dismissed Sasse's letter on Tuesday, telling Fox News that it engaged in a "steadfast commitment to eradicating and fighting any and all illegal content on the internet, including non-consensual content and under-age material."

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"Any suggestion otherwise is categorically and factually inaccurate. Our content moderation goes above and beyond the DOJ’s recently announced Voluntary Principles to Counter Online Child Sexual Exploitation and Abuse," a Pornhub spokesman said, referring to DOJ guidelines announced last week.

The Florida case served as a centerpiece of anti-trafficking activist Laila Mickelwait's petition to shut down the organization. As Mickelwait noted on Twitter, PornHub described the girl as a "verified model with valid ID."

Mickelwait's petition, which acquired nearly 430,000 signatures as of Tuesday afternoon, accuses the site of facilitating sex trafficking. Mickelwait has specifically claimed the organization has lax verification processes that allow users to upload content without verification of age or consent.

"They also will verify anyone with only a photo and a piece of paper stating a username -- again no verification of age or consent required. This is a policy and practice that enables rampant sexual exploitation of vulnerable women and children throughout the site," she previously told Fox News.

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Pornhub did not respond to specific questions about these accusations but outlined a series of measures it said it was implementing to counter child sex exploitation. It previously told Fox News that Mickelwait's petition was factually inaccurate -- a claim Mickelwait vehemently denied.

"Pornhub has actively worked to put in place state-of-the-art, comprehensive safeguards across its platform to combat and remove all unauthorized content that breaches the platform's policies," a Pornhub spokesperson told Fox News on Tuesday.

"This includes employing an extensive team of human moderators dedicated to manually reviewing every single upload. This allows us to take proactive action against illegal content, a step beyond all other major user-generated platforms. In addition, we have a robust system for flagging, reviewing and removing all illegal material, age-verification tools.

"The platform utilizes a variety of automated detection technologies such as CSAI Match, YouTube’s proprietary technology for combating Child Sexual Abuse Imagery content online; PhotoDNA, Microsoft’s technology that aids in finding and removing known images of child exploitation; and Vobile, a state-of-the-art fingerprinting software that scans any new uploads for potential matches to unauthorized materials to protect against any banned video being re-uploaded to the platform."

Motherboard previously investigated Pornhub's safeguards and reported it failed to block edited versions of videos by a company accused of coercing women into sex. Pornhub told Motherboard it condemned non-consensual content and touted its digital fingerprinting software, which the outlet claimed to circumvent.

Mickelwait's petition calls on a long list of politicians to take action against the company. Several members of Canada's parliament have sent Prime Minister Justin Trudeau a letter requesting the government investigate MindGeek, which owns Pornhub. The letter pointed to several incidents and cited the Sunday Times newspaper in the U.K., which also reported finding underage content.

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On Tuesday, Mickelwait praised Sasse's efforts and suggested the U.S. government had a special duty to investigate Pornhub.

"The United States is one of the largest consumers of Pornhub's hardcore pornographic content, and the U.S. government has a responsibility to ensure that this company not be allowed to continue to peddle and profit from crime scenes showing the real pain and suffering of woman and children packaged as masturbation material--Pornhub/Mindgeek, and the executives behind it must be brought to justice for their actions," she said.

Both Barr and the Homeland Security Department underscored the impact of DOJ's recent guidelines.

"I am confident the Voluntary Principles will help us move forward our goal of creating a world where children can grow up free from sexual exploitation," Acting DHS Secretary Chad Wolf said in a statement. "The Voluntary Principles set new norms across the private sector, incorporating child safety throughout a company’s operations and properly considering the needs of victim-survivors."