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Montreal-based MindGeek is one of the largest porn companies in the world — and yet much of the company is shrouded in mystery. Now, as it fends off accusations that it knowingly monetized child sexual abuse material on Pornhub, its two top executives face an ethics committee hearing in their first-ever appearance in a public setting.

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Left: man in the photo who is a podcaster from Norway. Right: MindGeek CEO Feras Antoon.Handout

Searching online for Feras Antoon, the CEO of adult entertainment conglomerate MindGeek, turns up a curious website called Feras Antoon Reports.

For the past few years, someone by that name has written dozens of articles about business, technology and, for some reason, weight-loss tips for women. His biography tells us Mr. Antoon is a “master in strategic planning,” an expert in search engine optimization and the “Gandalf” of his field.

The bio never specifies what, exactly, Mr. Antoon does, but there is a black-and-white headshot of this corporate Gandalf, a square-jawed, steely-eyed man in a sharp suit.

The picture is a freely available stock photo, in fact, and the man depicted is a Norwegian podcaster whose name is not Feras Antoon.

Pornhub’s parent company MindGeek facing proposed class-action lawsuit

While MindGeek did not answer a question about whether Mr. Antoon had the site created, it does resemble the sort of search-engine-optimized vapour conjured by reputation management firms, something the head of a pornography empire that guards its privacy might find useful.

MindGeek, which operates from Montreal, is one of the largest porn companies in the world, with some US$460-million in revenue and 1,800 employees globally.

One of a handful of companies that upended the adult industry by unleashing a wave of free content across the internet, it has long sought to obscure its corporate identity – while heavily promoting a broad suite of sites that includes Pornhub, YouPorn and many more.

Its reach now extends into many areas of the business. MindGeek runs free sites and subscriber-based ones, a platform for performers to sell videos, an adult video game subsidiary, a VPN product so users can browse anonymously and an extensive advertising network.

But now the veil of secrecy over MindGeek is ending. In December, it struggled to fend off accusations it allowed child sexual abuse material and other non-consensual videos to be posted on Pornhub. Mastercard and Visa then suspended the use of their cards on the site, with Mastercard citing an internal review that found “unlawful content.”

Political pressure is building, too. The House of Commons Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics is holding hearings into platforms such as Pornhub. On Monday, the committee heard from Serena Fleites, 19, who had a video of her at 13 years old uploaded to the site.

Ms. Fleites, who previously told her story to The New York Times, said it took weeks for the company to remove the video after she requested it be taken down. Afterward, the video was repeatedly uploaded to the site, forcing her to prove her identity all over again to have it deleted. The mental trauma caused her to attempt suicide, she said.

“You are dealing with a rogue company,” Ms. Fleites’s lawyer, Michael Bowe, told the committee. “It, in fact, knowingly commercialized and monetized this type of content.” MindGeek has denied these allegations.

On Friday, Mr. Antoon and MindGeek COO David Tassillo will testify before the committee, their first ever appearance in a public setting. For years, MindGeek seemed untouchable, even as its scale stoked worries in the industry.

“Hardly anyone would speak out against MindGeek, because that’s how they made their money,” said Allie Eve Knox, an adult content creator in Texas.

Interviews with 15 former employees from across MindGeek, along with a review of court filings and corporate records, reveal a company that was bent on dominating the industry from the start. MindGeek favoured amassing a huge library of content, even as employees had concerns with its moderation policies. The Globe is not any identifying former employees as they fear retribution from the company.

MindGeek was an early operator of so-called tube sites, styled after YouTube, that allowed anyone to upload content and viewers to watch for free. Producers of professional adult content are subject to laws to ensure performers are of legal age and every act is consensual, but the issue is considerably more fraught on a website where anyone can upload explicit material. The tube model, however, is cheap, efficient and lucrative.

Even so, MindGeek is not immune to financial pressures. Its insatiable appetite for growth meant it had to take on a massive amount of debt that still carries an unusually high interest rate. And to pay it off, the company needs an endless supply of content.

Mr. Antoon, 46, isn’t one to settle for small things, either. He’s currently building a sprawling mansion in the north end of Montreal, and records show he and his wife own two other large properties in Quebec, including a compound in the Laurentians. Around Montreal, he drives a bright yellow Lamborghini Urus bearing a vanity licence plate, according to people familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition they not be identified. The licence plate nods to his CEO status.

Mr. Antoon is an early employee of MindGeek’s predecessor, joining in 2008, along with Mr. Tassillo, 43. (Mr. Antoon is also the brother-in-law of one of the original founders.) Former employees said the two make a slightly odd pair. Mr. Antoon is gregarious, even charismatic, while Mr. Tassillo is more reserved.

But there is another important figure most MindGeek employees have never seen or even heard about: an Austrian named Bernd Bergmair (also spelled Bernard Bergemar), who has listed China as his country of residence in corporate records. One former employee who met him only knew his first name.

The company they oversee is a pornographic multinational. MindGeek is registered in Luxembourg and maintains a small office there, but is primarily run from Montreal in a generic six-storey glass-sheathed building. Aside from Pornhub, it owns other popular free and subscriber-based adult sites, such as Brazzers and Reality Kings. Pornhub alone receives an average of 130 million visits a day, and regularly ranks among the most visited websites in the world.

MindGeek’s operations extend beyond content. It runs an ad network called TrafficJunky across its properties, and serves up 4.6 billion ad impressions every day. A recent tagline for TrafficJunky asks: “Your customers are on Pornhub, so why aren’t you?”

Working at MindGeek, which employs more than 1,000 people in Canada alone, can be a strange experience. Many former employees compared it to a typical tech company – there are programmers, designers and business analysts. Others described it as an insular place, and likened it to an alternate reality. One arriving at the office for the first time was puzzled to find no desk phone. “Who are you going to call?” the former employee was told.

It has a bizarre approach to public relations, too. Try searching for any of its spokespeople and executives quoted in mainstream publications over the years. There are no social media accounts or any mentions of them aside from articles about MindGeek. An oft-quoted Pornhub vice-president goes by the name of Corey Price, for example, but it’s not clear he exists. There is, however, a vice-president named Corey Urman involved with Pornhub. (He, too, is on the witness list for Friday’s ethics committee.)

A person with knowledge of the matter said public relations staff routinely used fake names when dealing with journalists. MindGeek’s spokesperson wrote the company encourages pseudonyms in some public-facing correspondence. “This is necessary because some of our personnel and their families have been victimized by threats of violence and internet-based harm,” the spokesperson wrote from a Gmail address. (He refused to say whether he was using a pseudonym.)

Over the years, it’s received some money from the province. The Quebec government provided MindGeek with subsidies totalling about $189,215 from 2011 to 2018 to support tech-related jobs and boost the use of French in the workplace, a spokesperson for the Labour Ministry said. MindGeek also received about $7,330 in 2018 under a provincial program encouraging individuals and companies to use electric vehicles.

MindGeek’s origins can be traced back to the late 1990s, when a teenager in Brussels named Fabian Thylmann logged on to a forum for trading passwords used to access adult sites. A self-taught programmer, he started offering his services to fledgling porn sites after connecting with others through the forum. He later co-founded a company that made software to track affiliate marketing campaigns for the adult industry, but eventually left.

In the 2000s, pay sites were starting to struggle against a growing wave of free online porn. Mr. Thylmann swooped in to buy out floundering pay sites and realized he needed a hub to properly expand. Eventually, he settled on a company in Montreal called Mansef. Founded by some Concordia University grads, Mansef already had 200 employees, double-digit profit margins and many adult sites under its banner. At the time, Pornhub, which launched in 2007, was owned by a separate but related company.

By 2010, Mr. Thylmann had purchased Mansef, renamed it Manwin and struck a relationship with accounting and consulting firm Raymond Chabot Grant Thornton (RCGT) in Montreal to find $100-million in financing. Some other brokers became involved, including a Quebec firm called IBS Capital.

The fundraising effort later sparked byzantine litigation over commissions between Manwin, RCGT and IBS. Claude Delage, founding partner at IBS, said in court that Manwin needed money “to take global control of their business.” If Manwin bought its rivals one after the next, the multiples it would have to pay by the end would be “crazy.”

Instead, it made sense for Manwin to raise buckets of money and launch an acquisition blitz all at once before deals became public, Mr. Delage said. Plus, the company had to be ambitious to entice lenders who would otherwise dismiss the deal as too small.

Manwin’s raise ballooned, and court documents say the company signed a deal for US$412-million. Financial filings show Manwin ultimately took a term loan worth US$360-million.

Mr. Thylmann has said he thought differently than adult industry veterans, who were slower to move online. He applied strategies that are common now, but novel for the time – data crunching, A/B testing and user experience design.

The tube and subscriber-based sites worked together, too. Manwin offered unique content through its pay sites, and advertised them on its free properties, converting visitors into paying customers. The free sites, meanwhile, brought in huge amounts of traffic and earned money through advertising.

“This mix of the two parts was why this worked so well,” Mr. Thylmann said at a conference in 2016. The setup also fostered internal competition. The pay sites were allotted budgets and purchased ad space on their tube counterparts, just like any other advertiser. Moreover, the company’s video and data trove allowed it to identify trends early. If something proved popular on the tube sites, its pay sites would copy it, Mr. Thylmann said.

Later, under Mr. Antoon, MindGeek took that approach further. An article in the New York University Law Review in 2019 said MindGeek is more advanced than Netflix at mining data and using it to ensure content is tailored to viewer preferences. Scripts for videos shot for MindGeek’s pay sites are detailed, sometimes specifying the furniture and carpet styles on set. According to the Law Review article, MindGeek has determined the type of dialogue, positions and camera angles that will attract viewers.

As for Mr. Thylmann, he was charged in Germany with tax evasion in 2012, and sold Manwin the following year in what he’s described as a management buyout. According to a court submission from IBS, Mr. Thylmann had stated his shares were worth roughly $500-million.

After the sale, the company dealt differently with the outside world. Mr. Thylmann, now a startup investor and nightclub owner, seemed to enjoy his role as a porn mogul, and didn’t avoid publicity. That changed once the company was renamed MindGeek under the new ownership.

“MindGeek today ... is a lot more hidden than Manwin was,” Mr. Thylmann said at another conference in 2017. “They went completely under the radar, making themselves obscure and not really showing anyone what it is, and who it is, and who owns it.”

The beneficial owners registry in Luxembourg provides some information, at least. Records show Mr. Antoon owns 67.6 per cent of the parent company, MindGeek S.à.r.l., while Mr. Tassillo holds 32.2 per cent. Still, how could two senior employees afford to purchase such a huge company? Ownership records turn up a third name: Bernd Bergmair, a man who has left so few traces of his existence he may as well be a ghost.

In December, the Financial Times reported that Mr. Bergmair is the largest owner of MindGeek through his stakes in various subsidiaries, citing people close to the company. Two sources also confirmed to The Globe that Mr. Bergmair owns the largest stake.

Determining anything about him is tough. He was born in the Austrian city of Linz in 1968, and graduated from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business in 1994. In an alumni publication from 2002, there is a single, blurry photo of him, a slim man with dark hair and glasses, attending a gathering with fellow Austrian graduates. No one in the photo contacted by The Globe recalled meeting him.

Mr. Bergmair did visit the Montreal office, though. Mr. Antoon, according to a former employee, emphasized that Mr. Bergmair was only a small shareholder. Mr. Bergmair, dressed in an expensive suit, never said much and appeared to be the very definition of a silent partner.

How and when he got into the industry is unclear. He used to work as a banker, according to people close to the company, and court records show he was the executive officer of a Hong Kong-based firm called Bright Imperial Ltd., which owned a porn site called RedTube. Questions sent to an e-mail address for Mr. Bergmair went unanswered.

Whether he founded RedTube, purchased it or became involved in some other way is, again, unclear, but it shopped itself around in 2008. A confidential sales pitch entered as an exhibit in a lawsuit claimed the site was the “world’s leading player” (Pornhub was then a distant competitor) and the sale represented a “once in a lifetime opportunity.” RedTube’s business doubled every three months, and it earned a US$292,000 profit in one month. The site employed just four people (two part-time) and spent nothing on advertising.

In August, 2013, MindGeek (technically Manwin at the time) acquired RedTube’s parent company, but Mr. Bergmair appears to still own a significant stake in the site. MindGeek’s corporate structure is complex, and according to its most recent financial filings in 2018, it’s an amalgam of at least 48 subsidiaries in Luxembourg, Cyprus, Ireland, the U.S., Canada and Romania, among other countries. Mr. Bergmair is the majority owner of a handful of subsidiaries, including a 59.99-per-cent stake in one called RT Holding, which holds RedTube.

As part of the RedTube deal, MindGeek is required to pay certain shareholders of RT Holding large sums of money, described as an “investment incentive fee” of about US$102.5-million in instalments between 2014 and 2024. Mr. Bergmair appears to benefit in other ways. After the change of ownership in 2013, a “significant portion” of the company’s royalty revenue was reallocated to other subsidiaries, including two owned by Mr. Bergmair, financial records suggest.

MindGeek’s finances, which are audited by Grant Thornton, show the company has plateaued in recent years. Revenue declined by 3 per cent in 2018 from four years earlier, though it reversed substantial losses with a profit of US$22.2-million.

Still, margins have narrowed significantly from the double-digits that first enticed Mr. Thylmann years ago. That’s partly because MindGeek pays a massive interest rate on the debt that has fuelled its expansion. At the end of 2017, the effective interest rate on its term loan was 20.4 per cent. In 2018, MindGeek terminated that financing agreement and secured a new US$370-million term loan with an effective rate of 11.9 per cent.

A source close to the company said Redwood Capital Management LLC in New Jersey, which focuses on distressed debt, and Roystone Capital Management LP in New York participated in the refinancing. Both firms avoid the spotlight; their websites show only a logo, a phone number and a generic e-mail address. Roystone did not respond to e-mails, while Redwood declined to comment.

A company owned by the two Reuben brothers, billionaire real estate investors from the U.K., has been a debt holder as well. A Reuben Brothers spokesperson said that a “tiny proportion” of the total debt, amounting to $3.5-million, was purchased on the company’s behalf by traders advising the firm. “The shareholders, shocked to discover the true nature of the business, have immediately set to sell their stake,” the spokesperson said.

Pornhub, MindGeek’s most well-known site, has always strived for a friendly image, with cheeky advertising and support for social justice causes. It has also relied heavily on marketing stunts. Pornhub said it sent branded plows to clear snow in U.S. cities (though some local media reported there was little evidence it happened), crowdfunded to shoot a movie in space (that also never happened) and submitted an ad to the Super Bowl (that never aired.)

Nevertheless, these stunts generated widespread media exposure, bringing the site to a wider audience, and the brand is part of popular culture. Jokes about its popularity amid lockdowns spread on Twitter last year, its jingle became a meme on TikTok and Saturday Night Live released a parody commercial.

But many providers in the adult industry have taken issue with Pornhub, in part because of pirated content on the site over the years. MindGeek said it uses digital fingerprinting to prevent pirated content from being uploaded, but creators say part of the onus is still on them to monitor for stolen content and file takedown requests.

“It’s near constant,” said Liara Roux, an independent performer in New York. She pays a company about US$250 every month to monitor for her videos and issue takedown notices to Pornub and other sites. “It’s no small amount that it’s costing me.”

At one point, she felt she had no choice but to put her videos on Pornhub and earn some revenue from the site. But the arrangement felt exploitational, and she started hearing stories about the difficulties some people had when requesting non-consensual content be removed.

“For me, it was like, I don’t want to be participating in this,” she said. Last year, Ms. Roux closed her account.

A December column in The New York Times reported that Pornhub hosts videos of child rape and revenge porn. MindGeek initially denied the claims. Internally, Mr. Antoon pushed back as well, calling allegations that Pornhub profits from child sexual abuse material and other non-consensual videos to be “factually untrue,” according to an e-mail he wrote to staff obtained by The Globe.

He lamented media coverage in another e-mail. “[T]his is unfortunately part of the challenges we will continue to face,” he wrote, ending on an optimistic note. “There is no better time than the beginning of a new year to start a new chapter.”

The Times opinion piece was not the first to take issue with Pornhub’s moderation policies, nor to call attention to illegal material on the site. The Internet Watch Foundation, a U.K. non-profit, reported 118 incidents of child sexual abuse material on Pornhub from the start of 2017 to October, 2019, for example.

Still, it was only in the wake of the Times column that Mastercard and Visa cut off the website. (The ban affects the sale of individual video clips sold by performers through Pornhub, as well as premium memberships to the site.)

The company quickly implemented sweeping changes to Pornhub, removing millions of videos posted by unverified accounts, prohibiting uploads from such users and implementing new criteria to verify users, among other changes.

Pornhub called these steps “the most comprehensive safeguards in user-generated platform history.”

The company says it uses a variety of automated technologies to detect illegal material, along with an “extensive team” of human moderators.

“We will not tolerate illegal content on our platforms, including non-consensual material and child sexual abuse material,” the company said in a statement.

MindGeek will not say how many moderators it employs, however. There is a group of employees in Montreal, known as content formatters, who prepare material to go online and also screen user-uploaded videos for inappropriate material. Formatters were told a team in Cyprus first flagged videos that did not meet MindGeek’s terms of service, such as material depicting children.

But if the content is not professionally produced, determining the ages of those in user-uploaded videos and whether it’s even consensual is ultimately impossible, according to former content formatters interviewed by The Globe, whose tenures spanned from 2012 to 2020.

On a typical day, a formatter could review between 100 and 200 videos. They don’t watch videos from start to finish, but instead click through at various points. The amount of videos employees were expected to review could be overwhelming, and one said formatters had around two minutes with each one. Any extra time spent assessing whether something violated the company’s guidelines created the risk of falling behind.

If they encountered videos that were clearly illegal, the content was quickly removed, formatters said. But difficulties arose if a video fell into a grey area, such as if it looked homemade or when trying to assess if someone was intoxicated, which would violate the terms of service. In cases where a content formatter was uncertain, a senior employee would make the decision.

Two former employees said that more often than not, managers favoured approving videos, rather than removing them. Sometimes managers would spot a tattoo, and use that as evidence that a person was of legal age and presumably consenting.

Occasionally, employees flagged content so egregious they recommended contacting the police. But two former formatters said they were discouraged by managers from doing so. One was told not to bother, since uploaders are typically anonymous and unlikely to be identifiable.

MindGeek did not address specific questions from The Globe, but noted in a statement it works with “non-profit organizations and law enforcement authorities” to stop the spread of illegal material.

Pay is low. The starting salary for a content formatter was $30,000 in 2012, and it was not much higher in 2020. The job also took a heavy mental toll on employees. One former formatter still thinks about the disturbing videos he saw, while another sought therapy just a few weeks into the role and soon quit.

The impact of the suspension from Mastercard and Visa on MindGeek is hard to gauge, and neither Visa nor Mastercard commented on what it would take to ever restore service. The only way to pay for a premium Pornhub account today is with cryptocurrency.

There are signs of strain. In a company-wide e-mail last month, Mr. Antoon wrote MindGeek had not met its financial targets for 2020. Still, MindGeek is a sprawling entity. It can continue to earn ad revenue and sell memberships to its other properties.

In the meantime, Pornhub still has work to do to clean up its platform. Even after it removed millions of videos in December, it’s not hard to find questionable content.

One verified account hosts numerous screen captures from Omegle, a video chat service that randomly pairs up users. In the videos, a man pleasures himself in front of those he’s been matched with, some of whom look to be teenaged girls, their faces fully visible.

Another account has a compilation video of women on Omegle exposing themselves (whether they all consented to have their images live on Pornhub is highly unlikely). The compilation video also includes a clip of three girls who look to be underaged goofing around and making lewd gestures.

After The Globe inquired, the videos disappeared from Pornhub.

- With files from Nicolas Van Praet and Stephanie Chambers

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