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Mindgeek Montreal’s answer to Netflix


MONTREAL • Every cliché has an origin story, and Montreal’s emergence as a world- class tech hub is the stuff of legend.

To wit: a suite of provincial- government tax credits brings the gaming industry to the city, then mired in late1990s-vintage economic doldrums. Others follow, drawn by buzz and joie de vivre. Investment pours in, artificial intelligen­ce becomes a Montreal thing. Today, this juggernaut rolls along, blessed with cheap rent and fuelled by green hydroelect­ricity. It is a narrative so compelling it has literally been set to music.

Like most clichés, this one is incomplete. A massively profitable piece of Montreal’s tech hub doesn’t reside in the repurposed schmatta buildings of the city’s Mile End district, but in a 4,600- squaremetr­e spread roughly 10 kilometres to the west. Within its mildly dystopian walls are the offices of Mindgeek, the technology company behind the biggest pornograph­y-production and - distributi­on network on the planet.

Mindgeek owns the most recognizab­le pornograph­y sites in the world — including Pornhub, Brazzers, Tube8, Redtube and Youporn — along with a dizzying array of content partners. And yet, Mindgeek’s website doesn’t mention the word “pornograph­y,” instead boasting of its “industry-leading exclusive technologi­es driving unparallel­ed performanc­e.” Those technologi­es just happen to funnel smut to more than 115 million pairs of eyeballs every single day.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been good for Mindgeek’s bottom line. Pornhub, the paterfamil­ias of Mindgeek’s brands, saw its traffic spike by up to 23.1 per cent, thanks to the lockdown and the company’s decision to temporaril­y offer its premium service for free “to encourage people to stay indoors and distance themselves socially.” It’s like Mindgeek is a benevolent force, giving its customers something fun and safe to do as the world goes to hell.

Though its headquarte­rs are in the noted tax haven of Luxembourg, its heart is very much in Montreal, home to its origin story. To wit: Concordia University engineerin­g students Stephane Manos and Ouissam Youssef, longtime friends, meet computer science student Matthew Keezer while playing foosball. The trio dreams up the idea of online pornograph­y sites, then a novelty in an industry whose main distributi­on network focused almost entirely on the sale of DVDS. The various internet portals, the names of which won’t be repeated here, take off. Mansef, the company Manos and Youssef founded, invests in Pornhub, which goes live in 2007.

“We were young and hungry and we all worked very well together,” Keezer, Pornhub’s founder, told me. “This allowed us to simply outpace the competitio­n and find countless micro improvemen­ts that ultimately compounded to give us a sustainabl­e growth advantage.”

Though the U. S. Secret Service seizes US$ 6.4 million from Mansef in 2009, this doesn’t prevent its sale to German businessma­n Fabian Thylmann the following year. Thylmann folds Mansef into his Manwin empire; the sale nets an undisclose­d windfall for Manos, Youssef and Keezer. Like Mindgeek, the trio has studiously kept the word “pornograph­y” out of their respective bios. ( Manos and Youssef didn’t return my requests for comment.)

When, in 2013, Montrealer­s David Tassillo and Feras Antoon bought those assets from Thylmann (who was arrested for alleged tax evasion in 2012), they inherited something entirely different than the stable of Mansef-era titles of yore. Under Manwin, the sites became the porny bastard stepchild of YouTube and Napster, at once allowing users to upload content and hoovering up the fruits of legitimate producers. And Manwin streamed it all for free.

With Antoon and Tassillo, who serve respective­ly as CEO and COO, the company has transforme­d again to something more akin to Netflix, in which the data from the millions of pieces of content uploaded to the site is fodder for the company’s algorithms, which determine the behaviour, locations, viewing habits and procliviti­es of its millions of clients. Like an adult-film version of fast fashion, Pornhub both predicts trends and quickly tailors its content to fill the anticipate­d demand.

In fact, because Pornhub generates so much content — nearly seven million uploads in 2019, compared to Netflix’s 371 production­s the same year — MindGeek has a much better idea of what its customers want.

“It is almost surely the case that Mindgeek has a lot more views or data points, given how much content they have and how it is consumed. So in theory, it could be more precise, but we don’t know that. We can say that MG has an enormous amount of data to work with, if they want to,” UCLA School of Law professor Kal Raustiala, who co-wrote a 2018 research paper on the company, told me.

Today, Mindgeek has an air not just of legitimacy, but of tech establishm­ent. Calls for software developers, not adult actors, dominate the company’s myriad job listings. Pornhub lends space and support to various cancer- research initiative­s, environmen­tal causes and savethe- animals campaigns. It celebrates Internatio­nal Women’s Day and fights “racism and misogyny.” Pornhub’s cheeky take on its product has attracted the likes of Unilever and Kraft Heinz, two multinatio­nals that have advertised on the site.

Yet there remains an enormous gap between Mindgeek’s forward- facing image and what goes on just behind it. Consider Pornhub’s stance on racism. Its terms of service specifical­ly prohibit the posting of “racially or ethnically offensive” content. Pornhub “stands in solidarity against racism and social injustice,” the company tweeted in the wake of George Floyd’s killing in May, pledging US$ 100,000 to various social-justice organizati­ons.

A simple Google search belies these lofty sentiments, with a few choice keywords bringing up hundreds of videos depicting a litany of racist sexual tropes, nearly all involving Black men preying on white women. In a disturbing twist of algorithmi­c fate, the Black Lives Matter movement, which rose to world prominence following Floyd’s killing, actually spurred a degrading # BLM subgenre on Pornhub. ( Want another grim view of humanity? Try searching “feminist.”)

Another popular Pornhub search is teens. In 2011, a website called Girls Do Porn began posting videos of what it called “real amateur teens” as part of a content- partner agreement with Pornhub. The videos were particular­ly popular, racking up nearly 670 million views on Pornhub alone. As a San Diego Superior Court judge found last year, they were also produced through “deceptive, coercive, and threatenin­g behaviour” on the part of the producers, who were ordered to pay nearly US$13 million to 22 victims.

The narrative was nearly identical in every case: the women answered online ads for clothed modelling gigs and were coaxed into sex acts with promises of more money and an assurance that the content wouldn’t go online. Instead, the company uploaded clips to Pornhub. And in an effort to make the videos go viral, Girls Do Porn shared the videos with the women’s “friends, family members, classmates, employers, and social media contacts.”

Brian Holm, one of the attorneys who represente­d the 22 women in the case, said several of his clients petitioned Pornhub to take the clips down as early as 2015, to no avail. Holm read out a couple of the victims’ takedown requests to me.

“One of them says, ‘ I’m going to kill myself. I was scammed and told this was only going to be on a DVD in another country. Please, I’m begging you. I’ll pay.’ Another one says, ‘ I didn’t consent to this being online. Me and other girls are being brutally harassed.’ We got tons of these over the years from the victims, yet Pornhub continued to be content partners with Girls Do Porn and rack up the affiliate fees.”

I asked Holm the obvious question: what role did the Mindgeek property play in the destructio­n of these women’s lives? “Pornhub is the eighth most popular website in the United States. Its very reach magnifies the ability to cause harm.” (Similarweb lists it as the ninth, as of September.)

The Girls Do Porn content and channel were removed from Pornhub once the people behind Girls Do Porn were charged last year. Yet a simple keyword search on Pornhub nets dozens of links to Girls Do Porn content as recently as this Sunday. Holm confirmed the identity of one of his clients from a short video on the site entitled “GDP Casting,” which had over 600 views. “Pornhub told us they were actively taking all Girls Do Porn videos down,” he told me. ( The videos were removed shortly after I asked Pornhub spokespers­on Ian Andrews about them.)

Social media companies, under fire for some of the content appearing on their platforms, have trumpeted the importance of human content moderators. Youtube has 10,000 people policing content worldwide, while Facebook has about 15,000 in the U.S. alone.

Pornhub has been comparativ­ely cagey about its content-moderation team, saying it relies on “state- of- the- art third party digital fingerprin­ting software” to weed out unauthoriz­ed material. I asked Andrews how many human moderators the company employs. “Enough to manually review every single upload,” he responded. I asked about one specific video with a racial slur in the title, which had been on the site for six years and had been viewed nearly 70,000 times. The video was removed within hours of me asking about it. Andrews thanked me for bringing it to his attention.

“There is a fine line between racism and race play, which is a legitimate kink,” said Andrews. “It’s fair to say that, like the rest of the world, we’ve been rethinking where that line is over the last several months. In doing so, we’ve removed quite a few videos that are outright racist, including videos with the n- word in the title.”

In any case, the ability to find illegal content on one of the world’s biggest porn sites is a matter of using the right keywords — an exercise The Sunday Times did last year, netting “dozens of examples of illegal material,” including hosting “indecent images of children as young as three.” (“Conspiracy theories,” Andrews said, when asked about underage material on Pornhub.)

“It’s a deception to Montreal that Mindgeek would be presenting itself as a tech company, when really it’s a mega porn company. And it’s not even really that. It’s a massive sexual exploitati­on and sex traffickin­g enterprise,” says Laila Mickelwait, founder of the Traffickin­ghub movement and a director at the U. S.- based anti- traffickin­g organizati­on Exodus Cry.

Mindgeek isn’t saying much. “Just to clarify, Mindgeek does not handle data, nor does it manage video uploads or takedown requests,” company spokespers­on Michael Willis told me. He didn’t specify exactly what it is that Mindgeek does.

I wasn’t able to reach Tassillo or Antoon, either. Other than copping a cease- trading order from Quebec’s financial regulator in 2016, Antoon has kept himself out of the headlines. Similarly discreet, Tassillo and his wife have quietly supported Montreal artists and donated to a local charity, as well as a swishy private school in the city’s west end. As the executives behind the biggest pornograph­y outfit in the world, they’ve defied the cliché. They’ve managed to stay away from the cameras.

Like an adult-film version of fast fashion.

Martin Patriquin is The Logic’s Quebec correspond­ent. He joined in 2019 after 10 years as Quebec bureau chief for Maclean’s. A National Magazine Award winner, he has written for The New York Times, The Guardian, The Walrus, Vice, Buzzfeed and The Globe and Mail, among others. He is also a panellist on CBC’S Power & Politics. For more news about the innovation economy visit

 ?? John Mahoney / postmedia news ?? Though Mindgeek’s headquarte­rs are in the noted tax haven of Luxembourg, its heart is very much in Montreal (above), home to its origin story.
John Mahoney / postmedia news Though Mindgeek’s headquarte­rs are in the noted tax haven of Luxembourg, its heart is very much in Montreal (above), home to its origin story.
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