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The Pornhub website is shown on a computer screen in Toronto on Dec. 16, 2020.

The Canadian Press

A 19-year-old woman told the House of Commons ethics committee that when she asked Pornhub to remove a video of her, the company responded by hassling her, demanding she prove she was the child in the video.

Serena Fleites was 13 when the video was first posted. She said even after it came down, the video was constantly uploaded to the site, the ramifications following her everywhere.

“It caused this huge buildup of anxiety and depression in me, which caused me to turn to drugs to try to forget about it, to turn to suicide to try to end it.”

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The ethics committee heard from Ms. Fleites and her lawyer Michael Bowe on Monday as it launched its study into the protection of privacy and reputation on platforms such as Pornhub. MindGeek, the parent company, was founded in Montreal and maintains an office there. It has expanded its operations to cities around the world.

Members of Parliament decided to study the issue in December, after Mastercard and Visa cut ties with the website. That move came after New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote that the site makes money off child rapes, revenge pornography and scenes of women being asphyxiated in plastic bags.

Ms. Fleites first shared her story with the New York Times, but said Monday that it took her a long time to feel comfortable telling her story. She said she waited until two days before the Times published its article to tell her family what happened.

Neither Pornhub nor MindGeek responded to questions Monday from The Globe and Mail.

In December, Pornhub said any assertion the website allows child-sexual-abuse material is “irresponsible and flagrantly untrue.” It then announced new safeguards, including banning unverified users from uploading content, implementing a verification process, and removing the ability for users to download content, with the exception of paid downloads within its verified model program. It also announced it would expand its moderation program. MindGeek also suspended millions of videos uploaded by non-verified users.

Ms. Fleites told the committee she grew up in a small town without WiFi or electricity. She said when she moved to a larger community, she was picked on. That’s when a guy showed interest in her and they started dating. He put pressure on her to send him a video of herself undressing. Ms. Fleites said she repeatedly told him no, but he insisted everybody does it and if they are in a relationship, she will do what he asked.

Soon, she said, everyone was sharing the video and it wound up on Pornhub, with the caption “13-year-old brunette shows off for the camera.”

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Ms. Fleites said guys in older grades harassed her and blackmailed her, saying if she didn’t send them videos, they would share the video of her with her family.

“No matter how many times I got it taken down, it would be right back up again.”

That cycle, she said, led her to reach out to Mr. Bowe.

Mr. Bowe, a partner at Brown Rudnick LLP in Manhattan, said his firm has been investigating Pornhub and MindGeek and its other sites for about a year, saying they have uncovered hundreds of accounts similar to Ms. Fleites’s. Stories, he said, of underage women who had exploited material posted on Pornhub, of adult women who were raped and had the rape video put on Pornhub and of trafficked women who had their videos posted to the site.

“This is about rape, not porn. It’s about trafficking, not consensual adult performance or entertainment,” he said.

Mr. Bowe said even after videos are disabled, the link and page stays, which keeps the search terms and tags intact. That means if someone searches a video that has been pulled down, the website’s algorithm will bring the individual to similar content.

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“It knew what was on its site like NASA knows what’s in a space capsule,” he said.

Mr. Bowe said since the company has been criticized, it has conducted a gaslighting campaign in the media and social media to discredit victims and deflect from the issue.

MPs were moved by Ms. Fleites’s testimony and thanked her for sharing her experience. Conservative MP Shannon Stubbs said through tears that “it’s rare in life to be in the presence of someone who has rare and incomparable strength and resilience.”

NDP MP Charlie Angus said the committee is going to “hold these guys to account.”

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