Urgent action needed as spike in porn site traffic raises abuse fears, say MPs

By Harriet Grant

MPs and campaigners are calling for urgent action to stop videos of rape, revenge porn and child abuse being posted on Pornhub as traffic to the site booms amid a worldwide Covid-19 lockdown.

Worldwide Pornhub’s traffic is up a record 12% this March compared to February as millions of people across the world are told to stay in their homes.

Pornhub owners Mindgeek have used the coronavirus lockdowns to promote their site, giving free Premium access to people living in isolation in Italy, Spain and France.

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Pornhub is the world’s biggest porn site and was visited 42bn times in 2019. It is free to access, with no age restrictions, and raises revenue through advertising and paid-for promotions by porn producers.

Some of the videos on Pornhub – as on other free-to-view sites – show extremely hardcore and violent pornography.

Campaigners say that this fact, coupled with the high prevalence of videos promoting sex with young teenagers (“teen” is one of the most popular categories on the site) means there is an urgent need to know for certain that videos are made consensually.

“It’s easy to upload non-consensual content because Pornhub allow anonymous uploads,” says Laila Mickelwait of US-based campaign group Exodus Cry. “They only require an email address. The videos feature millions of girls and women in sometimes violent situations and you have no way of knowing who they are or if they are really consenting and over 18.”

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The offer has led to a huge increase in visits to the site from affected countries: a 57% rise in Italy, a 39% rise in France and a 61% rise in Spain. Pornhub is giving some of its profits to the Covid-19 response.

But campaigners are warning that videos of serious crimes such as rape, incest and human trafficking are hidden among the millions of videos uploaded to the website by anonymous users, with Pornhub failing to moderate illegal content or ban those uploading them from the site.

Pornhub say they are taking significant steps to stop illegal content being posted.

MPs in the UK say that that measures to reform and regulate the porn industry have faltered, putting vulnerable people at risk. British campaigners against “revenge porn” say parents have contacted them in desperation, unable to get non-consensual videos of their children removed from the site.

Last year attempts to introduce age verification systems into open access porn sites to stop children being able to access extreme online content stalled, and MPs are warning that regulation proposed in a new online harms bill , currently at consultation stage in parliament, does not go far enough.

“The online harms bill doesn’t go far enough. We have to get control over this industry,” said Tracy Brabin, the shadow culture secretary. “We have a duty of care to young people whose videos are being shared who might not want them shared, and … to potential victims of sex trafficking and rape.”

Her Labour party colleague MP Dr Rosena Allin-Khan has been working to support the UK group Not Your Porn in getting revenge porn removed from Pornhub.

She told the Guardian: “The most alarming thing is that people can be raped and their video can be posted online. That is absolutely shocking, there should be a national outcry.”

MPs from both sides of the political divide agree. Conservative MP Maria Miller, chair of the women and equalities committee, said: “These are hugely important issues and [the online harms bill] is taking too long, we have been talking about this for two years now.”

She said the promised duty of care should include a way to hold companies to account if unlawful material is posted.

Activist Laila Mickelwait, part of a group of activists at Exodus Cry, whose online petition attempting to force Pornhub to take down rape and abuse videos has attracted over 500,000 signatures, told the Guardian: “Pornhub handing out ‘free’ premium content is a way for them to cash in on those around the world impacted by the pandemic. Pornhub is collecting an incredible amount of user data including IP addresses by allowing web beacons and other special information targeting technology on all user devices, and monetising it for their own gain.”

PornHub did not respond to the Guardian’s request for clarity over its collection of user data.

Pornhub owners Mindgeek – based legally in Luxembourg but with offices in Montreal, London, Nicosia and Los Angeles – also deny the allegations made in the Exodus Cry petition and insist that they have thorough procedures for removing illegal content.

In a statement to the Guardian they said: “Pornhub has a steadfast commitment to eradicating and fighting non-consensual content and under-age material. Any suggestion otherwise is categorically and factually inaccurate.

They said: “Pornhub has state-of-the-art, comprehensive safeguards in place, including a robust system for flagging, reviewing and removing all illegal material, employing an extensive team of human moderators dedicated to manually reviewing all uploads to the site, and using a variety of digital fingerprinting solutions.

“Automated detection technologies such as YouTube’s CSAI Match and Microsoft’s PhotoDNA are added layers of protection to keep unauthorised content off the site.”