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Rob Shaw: Attorney general Niki Sharma earns the ear of tech on non-consensual online images

Major industry players responding positively so far to the province's new law
Attorney General Niki Sharma has been selling B.C.'s landmark legislation to outlaw non-consensual online images. TIMES COLONIST

When B.C. passed its landmark new law to fight the online distribution of non-consensual intimate images, one of the big questions was: Will any of the global tech companies listen to a tiny province like British Columbia?

It turns out, in the case of several major players, the answer is yes.

Attorney General Niki Sharma recently met with Google and Microsoft, the two largest search engine operators in the world, as well as the owners of Pornhub, one of the biggest pornography websites. All have indicated their willingness to abide by B.C. court and tribunal orders to remove non-consensual photos and videos.

“What I heard from them and the other companies I met is there’s a clear interest in making sure their sites are not exploiting people in a non-consensual way,” Sharma said in an interview.

“I’ll keep meeting with as many companies as I can to respond.”

Sharma issued an open letter to companies May 3 informing them of B.C.’s new law and the province’s expectation “that your organization will do your part to help keep people safe.” She urged companies to step up and meet with her ministry.

MindGeek, the IT company that owns Pornhub, responded.

“We take the new legislation seriously and will carefully review the information you have provided to ensure that we remain compliant with all applicable laws and regulations,” its chief legal officer replied in a letter dated May 12.

“We understand that compliance with the new legislation is essential to maintain the trust of our users and stakeholders, and we will continue to take all necessary steps to achieve this.”

It perhaps goes without saying, but there are thousands of internet pornography sites beyond Pornhub. Still, as one of the largest, Pornhub has already clashed with courts and legislators in countries attempting to curtail the content it posts. It has faced allegations it hosted material depicting sexual abuse, and abuse of minors, and profited from people viewing those photos and videos.

The company faces several lawsuits in the United States. Its two top executives resigned in 2022. In Canada, a House of Commons ethics committee report proposed legislation to combat consensual and child sexual abuse material at Pornhub and other sites.

MindGeek was sold to an Ottawa private equity firm called Ethical Capital Partners in March, whose members include lawyers and a retired senior RCMP officer. The new owners pledged to do better, but the company, which was once based in Montreal, has relocated its headquarters to Luxembourg.

Sharma met via video conference with MindGeek officials this month to discuss its protective measures, which includes automated software, user flags and staff reviews of content, along with its processes to immediately disable access to content flagged for review.

“They are also very concerned about any non-consensual disclosure on their site and talked about how a court order from B.C. would fit into their existing process in terms of determining what is consensual or not,” said Sharma.

B.C.’s new law allows someone to quickly go to the Civil Resolution Tribunal, or B.C. Supreme Court, to get a ruling that material was shared without their consent and an order for companies to remove it. The orders are enforceable in British Columbia and carry fines for non-compliance. But the government has said it hopes the legal process will carry enough clout to force companies outside its jurisdiction to comply out of good faith.

Sharma said she appreciated the briefing from MindGeek on how it removes non-consensual imagery from its websites, which also include Brazzers, Redtube and YouPorn. But she said she’d prefer to see the company recognize that by the time B.C. issues an order it has already investigated the matter, determined the material is non-consensual, and doesn’t need a third-party private company to take up time redoing its own review.

“The advantage of having that determination in a public way through our judicial system is once that order comes to a company like Pornhub and others is it is very clear there was harm done,” she said.

“In some ways. it makes it clear to these companies what harm was done and their internal processes are not needed.”

With Google and Microsoft, the conversation centered on how the companies decide what websites are indexed or delisted from their respective search engines, which are the most-used search platforms on the internet.

“The bigger actors are key, because they set a standard,” Sharma said of the meetings.

“There will be a whole ecosystem of ones out there, and we need to get the word out.”

The government’s new law still has a number of hurdles to clear before British Columbians will know for sure if it gives them the necessary tools to fight back against online sexual exploitation.

But the attorney general is making surprisingly good progress out of the gate in gathering up support from major industry players. It bodes well for the idea that this law is a giant step in the right direction to fight a growing problem.

Rob Shaw has spent more than 15 years covering B.C. politics, now reporting for CHEK News and writing for Glacier Media. He is the co-author of the national bestselling book A Matter of Confidence, host of the weekly podcast Political Capital, and a regular guest on CBC Radio. [email protected]