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Pornhub, Stripchat and XVideos to be policed under EU’s stringent digital rules

Canadian-owned Pornhub is one of the three porn sites designated a 'Very Large Online Platform' (VLOP) under the EU's Digital Sevices Act.
Canadian-owned Pornhub is one of the three porn sites designated a 'Very Large Online Platform' (VLOP) under the EU's Digital Sevices Act. Copyright LIONEL BONAVENTURE/AFP or licensors
Copyright LIONEL BONAVENTURE/AFP or licensors
By Mared Gwyn Jones
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Pornhub, Stripchat and XVideos will need to abide by the European Union's strictest digital regulations after they were designated "very large online platforms" (VLOPs) by the EU executive on Wednesday.

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The three adult content companies join the likes of Facebook, Instagram, Google and Elon Musk's X on the bloc's list of platforms with more than 45 million average monthly users in the EU.

Brussels will now be able to police the sites' compliance with its strictest set of rules under the landmark Digital Services Act (DSA), including on protecting minors and addressing the dissemination of illegal content.

"I welcome the designations of Pornhub, XVideos and Stripchat as Very Large Online Platforms. It will allow for higher scrutiny and accountability of their algorithms and processes," Commission vice-president Margrethe Vestager said.

The move is an important step in Brussels' bid to crack down on a notoriously deregulated industry, amid increasing concerns about lax age verification mechanisms and the circulation of child sexual abuse material and AI-generated revenge porn.

Canadian-owned Pornhub and global webcam service Stripchat, whose EU headquarters are both in Cyprus, had claimed that their monthly users did not reach the 45 million threshold, with Pornhub citing 33 million monthly users in the bloc.

A senior European Commission official confirmed Wednesday that based on alternative data sources, the EU executive had "reasonable certainty" that the platforms' methodologies for calculating user numbers were flawed and that both had monthly users "above and beyond" 45 million.

But in response to the decision on Wednesday, Pornhub rebuffed the Commission's assessment and maintained their initial claim: "As of July 31, 2023, Pornhub has 33 million average monthly recipients of the service in the European Union, calculated as an average over the period of the past six months," the statement reads.

EU commissioner Vestager claimed that Pornhub had received 33.5 billion visits in 2018 alone, before the Covid pandemic saw visitor numbers on pornography platforms surge.

After initially refusing to publish its user numbers in February, French-owned XVideos confirmed in June that its monthly visits amounted to a staggering 160 million, and did not contest its designation as a VLOP. Founded in Paris in 2017, XVideos is now registered under a Czech holding company.

The VLOP designation triggers new rules for the three companies, aimed at tackling risks related to illegal content, fundamental rights and public security. The new obligations are due to kick in on 17 February 2024, with the Commission expected to review the three porn sites' risk mitigation reports by the end of April.

The Commission says that the list of companies tied to the most stringent rules will grow, with other platforms including Only Fans and Telegram under its radar. 

Adult entertainment companies are renowned for being difficult for regulators to rein in, but a senior European Commission official confirmed that the dialogues with platforms were progressing well.

“They pick up the phone when Europe calls," the official said.

Child protection in focus

One of the bloc's main concerns is the risk posed to minors in the absence of effective age verification tools when accessing pornographic content.

Porn sites are obliged to ensure minors cannot access adult content under the EU's 2018 Audiovisual Media Services Directive, but the rules are not effectively enforced. 

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"I have been very clear that creating a safer online environment for our children is an enforcement priority under the DSA," Commissioner Breton said.

A lack of a robust technical solution to ensure minors cannot bypass age verification checks is one of the major stumbling blocks, also for national regulators. A French bill passed in October allows the government to block pornographic sites that do not have sufficient age and identity verification measures to prevent minors from accessing their content.

Other nations, such as Australia and the UK, have run into difficulties in identifying a robust technical age verification solution that also complies with privacy standards.

While VLOPs will need to comply with the strictest of the bloc's digital regulations, all platforms and search engines will also have to comply with new rules as of February, including redesigning their systems to ensure the safety of minors.

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