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Hunt for the porn king: a reckoning

Hunt for the porn king: a reckoning

Last year, as women accused Pornhub of profiting from their abuse, we tracked down its intensely secretive owner. This week, we’re looking back to find out: what happened next?

Why this story?

At Tortoise we try to slow down and dig deeper, but we also think that slowing down means staying the course – and following a story. Has anything changed? Has there been any accountability, or a reckoning? And where do we go from here?

In this special episode, we’re looking back at our investigation into the world’s best-known porn site to find out what happened next? David Taylor, Editor

Transcript

Basia, narrating: Hello, it’s Basia here, and you’re listening to the Slow Newscast from Tortoise. Now you might remember a few weeks ago, we returned to some of the key investigations that we’ve published in the last year – to stick with the story and to understand what might have changed. Has there been a moment of reckoning? Accountability? Has our reporting had an impact? 

In this episode, we are returning to the strange and troubling world of online porn.

So I’m here with my esteemed colleague, Alexi Mostrous – who, along with Xavier Greenwood and Patricia Clarke, and producer Katie Gunning, reported an episode last year called ‘Hunt for the Porn King’. It was about PornHub, one of the most visited websites in the world – but really, it was about the company behind PornHub, called MindGeek.

That company sort of prides itself on having a bit of a cheeky image and a very cavalier, libertarian attitude. But, while it didn’t seem to care at all about the privacy of the people featured in the videos on its platform, the owner took a very different view of his own privacy. And so, we set out to find the man behind the porn empire.

Alexi: Sorry. Do you mind just driving to the end of the road and then turning around the corner? Thank you. 

Alexi, narrating: It’s 5:30 in the morning. I’m in an Uber, on my way to a mansion that sits on one of London’s most expensive streets.

Alexi: Just around here. Just behind that Mercedes, please. 

Alexi, narrating: I’m going there because I want to speak to a man who lives there. I take a walk up and down the street, and then settle about 20 meters away from the house. 

The man I’m there to meet is one of those rare people who leave almost no trace online. He’s the majority owner of a huge international company – a company that owns dozens of websites. One of those websites is the 10th most visited in the world. Three billion people visit it every month. I’m talking, of course, about online porn. 

It’s the porn business that provides the man I’m looking for with tens of millions of dollars in profit every year. But until very recently, no one even knew that this man existed. 

It matters because online porn is facing a reckoning. It’s accused of facilitating and broadcasting the abuse of women, and of allowing torrents of abusive imagery to saturate the internet. And yet, we still know almost nothing about the men behind this industry. 

I’m here to find a man called Bernd Bergmair. The primary owner of MindGeek, a huge Canadian porn company, and the company that runs PornHub – the world’s number one porn site. 

And crucially, like YouTube, PornHub allows anyone who wants to, to upload content. And this creates a massive problem: How do you make sure that abusive material doesn’t get through? In PornHub’s case, the answer seems to be…you don’t.

Then came February this year, when leaders of MindGeek – two men called Feras Antoon and David Tassillo – appeared before Canadian MPs to face allegations that child pornography was on their flagship website. 

News reporter: You just heard from the witness, that she tried to get explicit videos of her that were on PornHub without her consent when she was 13 years old, removed. I guess it is the case that MindGeek, or any of its at least 48 subsidiaries, has monetized child sexual abuse and non-consensual material.

Alexi, narrating: Feras Antoon defended MindGeek, telling the MPs that he had created a very good product that he was proud of. For me though, one short bit of his testimony stood out 

Canadian MP: Who is the European national?

Feras Antoon: Uh, his name is Bernd Bergmair, and he owns over 50%. 

Alexi, narrating: This was the first time that Antoon – or indeed any representative of MindGeek – had named the man who is the group’s majority owner. We had a name: Bernd Bergmair. Bernd Bergmair, to me, seemed to be the ultimate expression of this corporate opacity. A man who, despite considerable power in the porn industry, had kept himself completely out of the public eye.

But after these revelations, it became very clear to me that finding out who Bernd Bergmair is, really matters. 

Patricia: Bernd Bergmair.

Alexa device in background: I found this on the web. 

Alexi: Jesus, that’s my Alexa. [laughing] 

Alexi, narrating: I need to introduce two reporters: Patricia and Xavier. 

Xavier: We don’t know anything at all – apart from his date of birth, where he was born, where he is possibly resident now. And then the last thing, which the Globe and Mail described, was a single blurry photo. 

Alexi: Oh yeah. 

Xavier: And that was in an alumni publication for the University of Chicago.

Alexi, narrating: But I had also found something good. 

Alexi: So there’s this actor called Michael Teh, who has posted a series of pictures of a guy called Bernd Bergmair, roughly the same age. There’s lots of little clues that, maybe this is our man. His Facebook only has six friends and is a private profile. So if it wasn’t for Michael Teh, you wouldn’t see it.

Alexi, narrating: So at this point, we were making real progress. We’d found up-to-date pictures of someone we thought might be Bergmair on Facebook, and had some interesting background from Austria. And then, a few days later, another breakthrough: we find Bergmair’s partner, a woman called Priscilla, on Instagram. 

Priscilla, in an Instagram video: Hey everybody. So I’m gonna show you how I make my pictures. Everyone say I make really nice pictures. 

Alexi, narrating: Even though she’s definitely not the story, we’re seeing potentially really valuable clues that could tell us more about her partner – pictures of more houses in Austria, names of relatives, trips she’s taken to Italy, Greece, the Seychelles – they all could lead us closer to Bernd. 

But the most exciting thing about Priscilla’s Instagram page, isn’t actually a picture. It’s one word in her profile description: London.

Were we really justified in trying to unmask one man, just because he held a large investment in a private company? And the answer – for me, at least – lies in one word: harm. 

Laila: You know, there’s just no way that they’re vetting seven million videos uploaded to PornHub every year. 

Alexi, narrating: That’s Laila Mickelwait. She’s an anti-trafficking campaigner.

Laila: There was a case of a 15-year-old girl in Florida, who was found to be raped and abused in 58 videos on PornHub. She had been missing for a year, and her mother was tipped off because somebody had seen the girl on PornHub – but nobody had brought to the world’s attention that the most popular porn site in the world was not verifying age or consent.

Alexi, narrating: Until recently, anyone with a valid email address could upload content to PornHub. They didn’t have to prove they were over 18, or verify their identity. MindGeek makes 50% of its money from advertising, and the rest from premium subscriptions. The more visitors that they can attract, the more money they make. And last year, MindGeek brought in revenues of close to 450 million dollars.

Feras Antoon, the PornHub CEO, told the Canadian MPs that safety was MindGeek’s top priority. He said that human moderators watch every single video uploaded to the site. 

Lawyer: MindGeek, at times, had as few as six, and no more than 30 moderators for the entire site. Of all the uploading, it is mathematically impossible for them to review the content.  Until very recently, you could punch in words like child rape, or rape, child porn, CP – code words, all these sort of things – and you would get a result. You would get videos.

Alexi, narrating: I’d asked Patricia to focus on finding victims to speak to. 

Serena: I’m one of the people who ended up homeless, ended up dropping out of school, ended up on drugs. Completely detached, like detached from my family. 

Alexi, narrating: That’s Serena Fleites. She’s 19 now, but when she was 14, she made a video for a boy she was dating – and he posted it to PornHub.

Serena: I ended up trying to kill myself many times. 

Alexi, narrating: This is Serena talking to the Canadian ethics committee. 

Serena: Uh, I ended up in mental hospitals. There was instances where the video would have, like, literally 2.7 million views. And it would still be on PornHub, despite hundreds of comments saying that, oh, this is definitely child pornography.

And yet PornHub still wouldn’t take it down. Even when I messaged them multiple times, it would take forever. 

Alexi, narrating: I should say that MindGeek strongly denies any wrongdoing. Its executives told the Canadian MPs they were committed to doing more to safeguard users and performers. 

Serena: I had messaged PornHub to get the video taken down. Tried to deal with it on my own.

I pretended to be my mother. I flagged it, and I said, “Hey, this is, um, this is my daughter. She’s only 14 now. This is child pornography. Please take this down.” And they, you know, it took like a week or two to respond. And then, once they finally responded, they’re like, “Oh yes. Okay. We’ll take it down.” And then proceeded to wait another two weeks before they finally did take it down.

Alexi, narrating: And that’s why you find me on that smart street, early on a Monday morning, waiting and watching. I was there to finally try and get some answers from Bernd Bergmair. 

Alexi: All right. 

Alexi, narrating: At half past eight, there’s movement. 

Patricia: Oh, hold on. Hold on. Hold on. Hold on, hold on. Is that him? 

Alexi: I think that’s him. 

Patricia: It’s actually him?

Alexi: Yes, it is. Mr. Bergmair? Hi, I’m very sorry to disturb you at your house. I just wondered if I could ask you a few questions about MindGeek. Do you mind? We’re producing a story about MindGeek, sir. And a lot of the victims on PornHub, a lot of the victims on PornHub are very anxious to hear what you think about how PornHub allowed lots of horrible videos to be on their site. So, do you have anything to say? Do you have anything to say to the women? To the victims? No? Okay.

Alexi, narrating: He looked really angry, just genuinely shocked that we’d found him – and really angry.

I hadn’t quite believed that he would really be there – but there he was, standing in front of me, just another middle-aged guy wearing a black anorak and dad jeans, refusing to answer any of my questions. And that, that was it. I felt weirdly deflated. 

We tried sending him a letter by registered post, and numerous emails, but he’s refused to engage or even acknowledge us. It seems to me that Bernd Bergmair represents something that’s dangerous in today’s internet economy. He represents the ability of a company to prioritize clicks over safety, profit over transparency.

Finding Bergmair feels like the beginning of accountability for MindGeek – and for the other massive porn companies who are, to be honest, just as secretive.

***

Basia: Hi, Alexi. 

Alexi: Hello. 

Basia: So we just heard a clip from your pretty gripping search for the man behind PornHub. It was a real accountability moment, wasn’t it? For the victims of PornHub. 

Alexi: It was actually one of the nicest parts of the whole process, cause after we published the podcast, we got messages – I think maybe kind of five, six messages from victims, some of whom we hadn’t actually spoken to at all – and they just said that it was really useful for them, and really important for them, to know who the guy behind the company that had put them through so much pain was. 

Basia: Yeah. 

Alexi: So in that sense, it was a kind of personal accountability moment. We also had lawyers getting in contact saying, “Can you give us this guy’s address? Because we want to name him in lawsuits.” So there was that side of things as well. 

Basia: So, beyond finding Bernd Bergmair, what’s happened to PornHub and MindGeek since you found him in London?

Alexi: So it’s been a torrid year or so for PornHub, and for MindGeek. Since our investigation, there have been more lawsuits that have been filed against the company on behalf of dozens of women. The lawsuit that we talked about in the show…that was settled. So 50 plus women got significant payouts from PornHub in California. But then in Canada, there was this big kind of class-action, 500 million dollar lawsuit that was launched – that’s still ongoing. So kind of amid all that pressure, the two executives at the center of the company that weren’t Bergmair – a guy called David Tassillo and a guy called Faras Antoon – literally last month, they both stepped down. So I think, that was probably the biggest kind of single impact on the company – not just as a result of our investigation, but everything that had been, uh, all the pressure that had been put on the company since Nick Kristof, the New York Times journalist, really kicked this whole process off in December 2020. 

Basia: And what’s happening for the victims now that there’s this sort of domino effect, that all these cases are starting to come to court?

Alexi: I think that some of the victims are getting significant payouts from the company – which I think will go at least some way to compensating them for what PornHub put them through. PornHub and MindGeek have been forced to change their own rules around what videos go up on the site and what content they allow. So, the potential for future abuse has been lowered. And there are systems now in place, particularly around this class action lawsuit, that will allow more victims to come forward. So I don’t see the situation stopping anytime soon.

Basia: And are there any moves towards self-regulation? Are the companies changing the way that they do things, or are we talking more about government-imposed regulation? 

Alexi: The issue of regulation is really interesting. So PornHub makes a big deal about the fact that they have now got a system in place, where they do react to concerns quite quickly. And they’ve done studies that show that they react to child abuse imagery faster than Facebook or Twitter. And they kind of make a big play about that. But obviously, they’re in a particularly sensitive situation because they’re a porn company. So, the potential for abuse is much greater. But look, I think basically the situation with regulation is that it’s got better. You know, you can’t just upload a video on PornHub now, with an email address, of a minor, and not have it taken down for three years, which is what you could do before…but it’s still not fantastic. And that’s only one company – there’s a whole bunch of different companies that haven’t even done what MindGeek has done. 

So, that’s a long-winded way of saying that there are calls for wider government regulation, so that you take it out of the hands of the individual companies, but it hasn’t quite happened yet. 

Basia: Yeah. And you said that there are other companies – are there other, really poor examples of companies that are basically making money off tons of porn that is poorly regulated?

Alexi: Yeah, so MindGeek is the biggest overall porn company. But PornHub is not actually the world’s most popular porn website. That honour goes to a website called XVideos, which is owned by this very secretive guy in France and his sister. And this guy in France, called Paco, is kind of like Bergmair in the sense that no one else has ever seen a photograph of him.

He lives in the shadows. And it’s the same thing. It’s like PornHub, MindGeek, like six years ago. You go on this site, and honestly, it’s insane what is on there. And it’s especially insane when you look and you find out that XVideos is the sixth most popular website in the world. Like, how is that possible?

Basia: So what you’re saying is that, beyond PornHub and MindGeek, the story doesn’t end there. There’s still a lot of work that needs to be done to ensure that this industry is not exploiting women and victimizing them. 

Alexi: Yeah, absolutely. There’s a problem because MindGeek is a Canadian company.

There’s a lot of visibility, a lot of press, around PornHub in the US. Nick Kristof wrote about PornHub. There’s a hedge fund guy called Bill Ackman that put a lot of pressure on MasterCard to withdraw services from PornHub. Everything was PornHub, PornHub, PornHub. And no one really cares to the same extent, especially in America, about XVideos. Maybe because it’s a European company, maybe because they feel like they’ve kind of solved the problem in terms of MindGeek. But there is this big elephant in the room, that we need to work out how to tackle too journalistically. But it’s basically, you thought MindGeek was bad – this is worse. 

Basia: Well, it sounds like you’ve got your mission then. Where you need to go next.

Alexi: Seems like it. 

Basia: So, your journey into the world of online porn is not over, it sounds like. 

Alexi: My professional journey into the world of online porn isn’t over, no. There’s a lot more to go. 

Basia: Great. Well, good luck. 

Alexi: Thank you. 

***

Basia: As ever, thank you so much for listening. We’ll keep you updated on where the story goes next, and look forward to bringing you another investigation next time on the Slow Newscast. This episode of the Slow Newscast was produced by Imy Harper, the editor was David Taylor, and it was presented by me, Basia Cummings.