porn

UK Porn Is About to Change in a Way You're Not Going to Like

How the government has given the shady company that controls the majority of free porn tube sites carte blanche to take over completely.

Matt Blake

A porn actress adjusting her underwear. Photo: Brian George Melchers / Alamy Stock Photo

At 15:03 on the 1st of March, 2017, a senior representative from MindGeek – the most powerful porn empire in history – sent the British government an email.

"I’m sure Matt Hancock [minister for digital policy] is not in the business of inviting pornographers for a chat," he schmoozed. "But if it’s ever useful for me to talk to him directly (without stepping on anyone’s toes!), as a representative of the largest adult content provider in the world, I’d be more than happy to discuss any issues directly with him but also show our support for what I hope will be an effective bill! [smiley face]."

It was one of a string of emails – revealed by a Freedom of Information request – sent between MindGeek and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport through the winter of last year; one link in a chain of events that’s about to change the way Britain watches porn forever.

This, though, is not a story about porn. It is about power. It’s about how quickly state and corporate interests can climb into bed together. Campaigners claim the government, in a vote-winning attempt to protect children from hardcore content, are in fact about to hand what is already the world’s most powerful pornographer a monopoly over online porn. This is an issue, they claim, that could affect the lives of more than a third of Britain's adult population.

It started in the summer of 2013. Mapping out a cornerstone of his election manifesto, David Cameron vowed to roll up his sleeves on internet pornography; a scourge, he said, that was "corroding childhood" and poisoning the minds of a generation.

Three years later, the Digital Economy Act was born. Part of the act would, from April of 2018, force all porn sites operating in the UK to age verify (AV) their users at, it seems, their own cost. If they refused, or couldn’t afford to comply, they would be shut down. For mid-market tabloid columnists, Tory politicians and many British parents, it seemed the perfect solution. Yet, for many inside the porn industry, it felt as if the proliferation of tube sites since 2010 had already forced it to its knees, and now the government was raising a gun to its head. But where most saw a bullet in the chamber, MindGeek saw an opportunity. With its reputation and resources, why not be the bullet? All it needed was to get the government to load it.

"MindGeek continues to drive the state of technology forward, developing industry-leading solutions enabling faster, more efficient delivery of content every second to millions of customers worldwide." – Mindgeek website

If you masturbated this week, chances are MindGeek had a hand in it too. MindGeek is the most powerful porn company on Earth; a sort of Wizard of Oz of smut that commands the land of online adult content. "MindGeek supposedly own about 90 percent of tube sites on the internet," says Britain’s leading obscenity lawyer, Myles Jackman. "They’re deeply unpopular within the porn industry because they’re widely blamed for killing the production end of the industry by distributing other people’s paid-for-content for free."

Take a look on MindGeek’s website and you’ll see no mention of porn. Instead, you’ll scroll through a tumescence of corporate waffle and gleaming worker testimonials, framed stylishly in gold and black. "[We are] leaders in the design, development, marketing, SEO and management of highly trafficked websites," the homepage purrs. That last bit means porn. With more than 115 million daily hits across its hundred or so websites, MindGeek consumes more bandwidth than Twitter, Amazon or Facebook.

Set up in 2010 by a charming 31-year-old programmer from Germany named Fabian Thylmann, MindGeek (then called Manwin) saw its first opportunity in the wildly-expanding "tube" site market. Given the offer of huge amounts of free – often pirated – porn, consumers saw no point in paying for what they could get for nothing elsewhere. MindGeek smartly snaffled any tube site that would sell.

Within six years the company was reported to own an estimated eight of the top ten most-visited tube sites on the internet, including Pornhub, Redtube, Youporn, Twistys, Gaytube and Tube8. With market confidence plummeting in the face of this newfangled competition, MindGeek’s tentacles could unfurl into the the studio business too, subsuming into its growing network such paid-for properties as Digital Playground, Reality Kings and Brazzers. As the American porn star Siri wrote in 2014: "It's kind of like how Wal-Mart intentionally builds Wal-Marts in small towns and drives prices down to a level that no local business could ever compete with, thereby shutting down all of the mom-and-pop stores and leaving the town with only one choice of where to shop: Wal-Mart. Except imagine that Wal-Mart did that, and then to top it off went into the mom-and-pop shops and literally stole all of their products to be resold at Wal-Mart."

"They don’t like people to know what they’ve bought," says Jackman. "It’s known within the industry that they own certain things, but not with consumers. They appear to be very paranoid, and it’s weird. Are they ashamed of themselves?"

As a privately-held company, MindGeek doesn’t want you to know how much it makes from your you-time. But for a peek, consider that MG Billing Ireland Ltd – the firm’s one-time Irish subscription wing – filed revenues of $427.17 million (£321.1 million) between 2014 and 2015, or about $585,000 (£439,750) a day. That’s just from the onanists prepared to pay for porn. The ones who aren’t are far more lucrative, thanks to MindGeek's sophisticated online advertising network, TrafficJunky, which serves up highly-targeted adverts based on users' viewing habits, a la Facebook, Google, Amazon and any other data-sucking surveillance capitalist.

"With over 1,000 employees worldwide, MindGeek continues its expansion with the acquisition and licensing of some of the most iconic brands in entertainment media" – MindGeek website

It's not clear if Matt Hancock ever took up MindGeek’s offer of a meeting. He did take up its offer to help implement the Digital Economy Act, though (others, such as Television X-owner Portland TV, were also consulted). According to the same Freedom of Information request, MindGeek met the government five times between September of 2016 and January of 2017. But why would a porn company, big or small, want to support legislation that actively threatens its livelihood?

The answer, according to Jackman, is pure business. "By dint of age verification, the government has essentially decided to abdicate responsibility for its own process by deferring to third-party corporate interests," he says. "The result, I suspect, is that MindGeek will choose, and eventually buy, the dominant age-verification product. This is basically a license to print money."

To understand the issue, you must understand the proposed system. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport has tendered AV solutions to whomever can come up with a foolproof plan to vet porn users. Then, once those plans are approved by the government-appointed regulator – probably the British Board of Film Classification – porn sites will choose which one to buy. A host of age-verification companies have submitted solutions. Tenders include:

• Credit card (by various): send your card details to the age verifier when prompted; they ask your credit card company to confirm you are over 18.

• Social media (Veridu): you authorise the age verifier to rummage through your timeline updates, your photos, friend lists, education history, all of your personal metadata and use machine learning to work out if you’re over 18.

• SMS (Verime): go to a porn site, the age verifier asks for your (UK) phone number, sends you a text, to which you reply, and the age verifier asks your telecom provider to confirm you are over 18.

• App (Yoti): download an app, take a photo of, say, your passport and then a selfie. Yoti matches your selfie to your document to create a secure digital identity. You can then prove you are over 18 anonymously and you don’t send any personal information to the porn site.

• Physical verification (AVSecure): take proof of ID to the post office, where a teller confirms you are over 18 and gives you a code that you take home and input into the porn site.

In a statement, the UK government said: "The British Board of Film Classification is the intended age verification regulator, subject to approval by Parliament. They will be responsible for determining the standards that age verification arrangements must meet to be considered compliant. There exists a wide variety of online age verification arrangements and we will expect providers of online pornography to choose the appropriate solution that meets their needs."

But MindGeek doesn’t want to pay someone else to vet each of its 115 million daily users – that would cost a fortune. So it has developed a solution of its own: AgeID.

"MindGeek’s approach is very intelligent," says Alec Muffett, an online security expert, former Facebook software engineer and a director of the Open Rights Group, which campaigns for digital freedom. "Rather than come up with a technology of their own, they promise to use 'anything that works' from the list of AV technologies, and will bundle it up in an easy-to-use interface which porn sites can buy as a service." This, he says, doesn’t have to stop at porn – the government is already discussing ways such AV technology can be used for online sales of knives, acid, alcohol and other child-unfriendly products.

Here’s how it will work: upon visiting, say, Pornhub, you’ll be asked to create an account before choosing one of a handful of third-party regulator-approved services to prove your age (some of the above, perhaps). AgeID then passes you on to whichever service you selected, which, in turn, returns with a simple "pass" or "fail". Now you have an account, the next time you visit a MindGeek site – or any other that uses MindGeek’s service – you can just log in. It’s fast and frictionless and, campaigners agree, a work of absolute genius.

"They have gone on public record to say they expect to sign up 20 to 25 million adult consumers in the UK in the first month alone," says Jackman. "That’s about a third of Britain’s adult population. In the first month! I mean, wow."

How they will do that is straightforward. "We are licensing AgeID to 3rd party sites in a fair, cost effective manner, based on the size of their UK traffic," a MindGeek spokesperson told VICE. "This makes age verification affordable to sites big and small, and continues our aim of a seamless browsing experience for users across our advertisers, affiliates and competitors."

So, while nobody will be forced to go with MindGeek’s AV solution, Muffett says its competitively-low pricing strategy will place enormous market pressure on competitors to do so, adding: "This will then provide the AgeID company with hugely-valuable analytics on which companies are most interesting but not part of MindGeek’s portfolio."

As for the websites which refuse to comply with the act, MindGeek has that covered, too. In another communique sent to the DCMS, the company urged the government to just ban any of the 4.5 million pornographic webpages on Sky’s firewall list. "The regulator should contact them all within [the first] 12 months, explaining that if they do not demonstrate they are AV ready by the enforcement date then they will be enforced against," a representative wrote.

"They are essentially lobbying the government to shut down any competitor who does not comply," says Jackman. "From a commercial perspective, this would benefit MindGeek hugely."

"Interested in taking Big Data to the next level? With over 100 million daily visitors to some of the world’s largest trafficked websites, we’re uncovering trends and user habits overnight that takes others months to gather." – Mindgeek’s website

MindGeek’s understanding of its users' autoerotic habits is already terrifyingly exact. While it might not know you by name (yet), thanks to pervasive online tracking and browser fingerprinting, it knows your IP address likes Japanese custard porn, which it usually views during the 10 o'clock news. And it could be about to know a whole lot more. "The amount of personal data users will be giving these companies, whether it’s credit card details, passport details or your entire social media history, it’s concerning from a privacy and security point of view, irrespective of whether MindGeek is involved," says Jackman. "Then you throw MindGeek in, as the dominant market leader, and it’s very scary."

There’s more. "There is absolutely nothing written into the bill that protects any of this juicy data that users will be handing over," says Muffett. "So they may say they don’t see or store the information, but there is nothing in the law stopping them from doing whatever they want with it down the line."

Instead, the government wants to leave that to the Information Commissioner’s Office. Then there’s the incoming Data Protection Bill, an upgrade on the 1998 act of the same name. But campaigners say neither has the teeth to prevent a major security breach.

It’s important to make clear at this point that MindGeek claims it will not see any user information, let alone store or sell it. The data, it says, will be collected by its "trusted" third-party providers. "Our current implementation requires an email address and password to setup an account, which is encrypted such that if the database were ever hacked there would be no information visible, just random strings of numbers and letters," the MindGeek spokesperson said in an email. "These strings cannot be reverse engineered to reveal the original email and password."

On that, Muffett says: "These statements are not anything that I can have confidence in, unless they publish their architecture; and there is no harm in publishing their architecture because good security works even when an attacker knows everything about it."

MindGeek’s sites are not the impenetrable fortresses it might have you believe, either: Pornhub, Brazzers and Digital Playground have all suffered major security breaches in the past five years. Only last month, Pornhub uncovered a malvertising hack that had lain undiscovered for over a year, exposing "millions of potential victims in the US, Canada, the UK and Australia" to attack.

"Everyone has focused on the media-friendly story of 'we must protect our children from porn'," says Muffett. "But they’ve completely ignored the fact that we're about to build this vast repository of toxic data that is ripe for hacking. How are we going to keep it contained? And when it is leaked out onto the internet, who is going to commit suicide? Who is going to be outed, lose their job, see their insurance premiums go up, or whatever? How much will a tabloid pay for the porn history of, say, the Manchester United team?"

"[Our mission is] to deliver a world-class portfolio of entertainment experiences and IT solutions to a global customer base, utilising our expertise to drive innovation and build new solutions exceeding customer expectations" – Mindgeek’s website

"I’m interested to see where MindGeek goes with this," Muffett says. "This is speculation, but assuming they’ll have cookies on the devices of 25 million people, by the magic of regulatory capture they have been given a market. If I were them, I’d try to become the next Facebook."

Muffett says he’d set up an ad-tracking network that sucks up all your personal data and bombards you with personalised adverts. "Basically, once you've identified people's web browsers, you can track them around and offer them advertising on the basis of where they've been before," says Muffett. "It starts with porn sites but it could end with gardening. It’s bizarre how the government can flick a switch and suddenly a potential multi-billion-dollar business market appears."

Pandora Blake’s website, Dreams of Spanking (NSFW), is not a multi-billion-dollar business; it's a niche "feminist porn" website that gets about 2,500 hits a day – nowhere near enough to stay afloat under this new porn-world order. "Porn has got really, really low sales turnovers," says Blake, who recently came out as genderqueer and asked to be referred to with gender-neutral pronouns. "For most mainstream porn sites, paying customers constitute about 0.1 percent of their user base, while for niche sites it’s more like 0.01 percent."

MindGeek hasn’t said if it will charge porn sites that use AgeID per user or with a blanket monthly-licensing fee. But Blake says it’ll make little difference: "Either way, I’m still paying a hefty proportion of my slim profits to the very company who makes money from my pirated content. There’s no way sites like mine could afford to verify every visitor. We’ll all go under."

But who, really, cares about a small-time fetish pornographer going out of business? Blake says we all should. They say that niche fetish sites play a vital role in providing confused young fetishists with an outlet to explore their sexualities. "The whole point of my website was to reduce shame and raise awareness around sexual fetishes and unusual sexualities and give people that feeling I had when I was 13, that I wasn’t just a freak. The internet can be an invaluable resource for any young person growing up with a queer or LGBT sexuality. I honestly think it can prevent suicides of young people when they realise that they’re not the only ones; that there’s nothing wrong with them."

Not just that; Blake fears the legislation could homogenise porn into an amorphous glob of "male-gaze, objectified fucking" – the very kind of "clickable, sensationalistic" porn, they say, that you’d least want your children seeing. "The tube site algorithms increase the visibility of the most mainstream, most heteronormative porn," they say. "It's a power law distribution – the more something is viewed, the easier it is to find and the more views it gets, and then producers make more porn like it because they know it's popular. There's so much diverse, alternative material out there on the open internet, but as MindGeek's monopoly increases I fear it will become less and less visible."


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Nobody interviewed for this feature says impressionable children should not be protected from the potentially harmful effects of hardcore porn. But this situation, to Jackman, Muffett and Blake, is not the answer. "This is a living example of the politician’s fallacy in the BBC comedy Yes, Prime Minister," says Jackman. "The government is saying: 'Something must be done. This is something. Therefore, we must do this.' The truth is, most young people are more internet savvy than their parents anyway, and if a young person really wants to find porn online they will. This legislation will simply teach our kids to be cleverer about the way they access it."

Here’s our new reality: thanks to the internet, children will see things that they probably shouldn’t. So as embarrassing as it may be for both parents and teenagers, part of raising a child today means explaining that, like Hollywood films, pornography is often a fantasy that can take things to extremes. In other words, according to Blake, legislation won’t help us be better parents to our children. Honesty, however, will.

"If we’re trying to create an environment where young people can safely have a sexual awakening without shame, then we need to make sure we’re not imposing our shame on them," says Blake. "I think a lot of the anti-porn arguments are led by parents who are ashamed of their own sexuality. Maybe they have trauma around sex, or have been bullied around it or never felt liberated to explore, and ultimately get, what they want."

And as for MindGeek, can we really blame them for exploiting a lucrative business opportunity? Is MindGeek so different from Facebook, Google, Amazon, Uber and any other tech giant with an eye on world domination? "I should make it clear that I don't think any of this is MindGeek's fault, per se – they are making a very savvy business decision," says Jackman. "My issue is that the British government is handing a commercial entity what is essentially a monopoly position on the world’s porn, which could affect millions of British people. They should think very hard about what they are doing."

But it was Muffett who summarised it best in an email to me this week. "I am [...] horrified that the government – in pursuit of a laudable goal such as child protection – has simultaneously bankrupted independent producers, created a business environment which could be exploited to dubious ends, taught people bad cybersecurity practices AS WELL AS creating Ashley Madison-like databases of hackable material."

With that, he added: "It would be a hat-trick of own-goals, except there are four of them. I don't even know what you call that."

@mattblakeuk

UPDATE 30/11/17: Extra detail has been added to the description of how the Yoti verification app works.

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