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Facebook Chairman and CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies in Washington on Oct. 23, 2019.

Erin Scott/Reuters

Allegations that Pornhub was showing videos of sexual assault and child exploitation are a shameful reminder that Canada fails to hold technology companies responsible for the illegal content on their websites.

True to form, our federal legislators have waited too long to take action on a burning issue. Now public anger is at a boiling point.

In December, New York Times journalist Nicholas Kristof wrote a damning column that argues women and children are exploited by Pornhub because it makes money by hosting videos of child rapes, revenge pornography and women being asphyxiated in plastic bags. Not only does he provide chilling details of recorded assaults, his column includes the words of victims harmed by the abuse and the proliferation of videos on the internet.

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“Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada calls himself a feminist and has been proud of his government’s efforts to empower women worldwide,” Mr. Kristof wrote. “So a question for Trudeau and all Canadians: Why does Canada host a company that inflicts rape videos on the world?”

Why, indeed. Pornhub is owned by pornography company MindGeek, which was founded in Montreal and is headquartered in Luxembourg. Owned by Canadians Feras Antoon and David Tassillo, MindGeek has operations around the world including on Canadian soil.

MindGeek, which initially rebuffed allegations that it allows child sex abuse material on Pornhub, has since suspended millions of videos uploaded by non-verified users across its platforms. It’s also vowed to create a new system that will require clients to confirm their identities before they’re permitted to post content. It will also bolster moderation to find and remove illegal content.

Let’s get real, those changes don’t go nearly far enough. And as Mr. Kristof rightly points out, this insidious problem isn’t limited to one tech company. Recordings and imagery of child exploitation and sexual assault can also be found on Facebook, Twitter and many other social-media platforms.

After years of shirking responsibility and profiting from illegal content uploaded to its sites, the tech industry lacks the moral authority to regulate itself.

Although the Trudeau government is planning new legislation in 2021 to require social-media companies to remove illegal content, it must broaden the scope of its impending crackdown.

Now is not the time for half measures. Sexual exploitation is the most common form of human trafficking and the vast majority of the victims are women and girls, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.

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Separately, the International Labour Organization estimates that forced labour generates roughly US$150-billion in illegal profits a year. Of that total, US$99-billion is derived from sexual exploitation.

Now consider this sickening statistic: 55 per cent of child sex abuse content online involves children 10 years old or younger, according to the Internet Watch Foundation.

Although Canada has made some strides in combatting human trafficking in recent years, our efforts still fall short. For starters, Ottawa should create a comprehensive database of investigations, prosecutions and convictions pursued by federal, provincial and municipal authorities.

That’s just one of a laundry list of suggestions that the U.S. Department of State offers Canada in a 2020 report. The recommendations also include ramping up prosecutions, imposing strict sentences, boosting funding for victim services and increasing partnerships with the private sector, including banks, to prevent trafficking.

Tech companies should be included in those public-private partnerships, and Ottawa should obligate them to report all illegal content uploaded to their platforms to law enforcement.

Additionally, tech companies should face the same anti-money laundering obligations as banks to report dirty money linked to human trafficking or other crimes.

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Our legislators need to wise up. Canadians aren’t above making a fast buck on illegal content. Nor do tech companies play a passive role in its propagation.

As advocacy group Friends of Canadian Broadcasting points out in a recent report, these platforms do more than just host harmful videos and images. Some also “proactively recommend” them. Moreover, their underlying technology gives them foresight into user-generated content before it is posted.

“Given their sophisticated prepublication knowledge of content – including harmful content – it is reasonable to ask whether the prevalence of hateful content on such platforms is intentional,” reads its report.

It also warns Ottawa not to underestimate the platforms’ technical prowess: “Platforms assert these capacities when appealing to advertisers, however, when dealing with regulators, they present themselves as hapless conduits struggling to police bad actors who use their services in undetectable ways.”

For those reasons, Friends is advocating solutions including imposing big fines on tech companies and creating a government agency to spearhead investigations on behalf of victims.

Ottawa should also approach the incoming Biden administration about amending the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement since there’s concern that it creates hurdles for holding platforms liable for uploaded content. There might be a willingness to act since some lawmakers want to temper the legal cover tech companies enjoy south of the border.

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For far too long, inaction has been the Canadian way. Illegal content is big business, so Canada needs an arsenal of new tools to hold tech companies to account.

The Pornhub mess was born and bred in our backyard as legislators sat on their hands and closed their eyes. Now they must redouble efforts to clean it up.

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