Assuming Direct Control

OK, I’m going to be talking a lot about porn here; or at least, the business side of things. If that’s not your bag, that’s fine, move along. Perhaps you might prefer my article about how the media turns science into a joke? However, as obscenity lawyer Miles Jackman has said, pornography is the canary in the coal mine of free speech. With the government currently working on the General Data Protection Regulation, one of the largest pornography companies in the world may soon be in possession of your data whether you like it or not.

The Conservative Party has stated it wants the UK to be the safest place in the world to be online. Quite the goal! Part of its plan includes the Digital Economy Act which passed just before Parliament dissolved in preparation for the shitshow of the 2017 General Election. The Digital Economy Act legislated that as of April next year, all providers of digital smut needed to age check their patrons. How they’re going to be going about this is still not quite clear. What is clear, however, is that one company, Mindgeek, is leading the way in developing an age verification platform.

Who Cares, Right?

Of course, if you don’t look at porn online, you probably won’t care. However, as expected, the age verification system is very likely to be expanded to other websites. As part of the draft General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), a few interesting phrases can be found indicating a desire to extend the remit of age verification across a hell of a lot of websites. Unless things change, Mindgeek could soon become the de facto controller of an age verification system to which we must all subscribe to access the vast majority of websites – adult, or not.

Who Are Mindgeek, Then?

Perhaps then, we should ask, who the fuck are Mindgeek? It is very likely you haven’t heard of them before. Much like Sinclair Broadcasting Group in the United States, Mindgeek is an incredibly powerful company that avoids the public spotlight. If you’ve ever decided to test the truthfulness of Rule 34, the chances are that Google has directed you to a Mindgeek website. Pornhub, RedTube, YouPorn and several more of the most popular “free” adult websites are operated by Mindgeek.

That isn’t all! They also run Brazzers, Twistys, Digital Playground, Babes, Fake Taxi and several more of the most popular paysites. Think we’re done? Mindgeek also operates an advertising network and its own payment processor. Quite the portfolio!

A Go-To Source for the Daily Mirror!

Through its PornHub brand, Mindgeek has attempted to establish a fun, friendly image to distance itself from the sleazy and darker side of the pornography industry. PornHub regularly publishes viewer statistics, lapped up by the likes of the Daily Mirror when Spanish sex robot enthusiasts haven’t given them much to work with. The paysites they run mostly steer clear of rough sex, favouring absurdity and parody with tongue in cheek storylines about horny cabbies and classic themes such as plumbers and pizza boys. It’s all good fun… if that’s your bag.

They have even launched a sex education section on PornHub, aimed at the kids the Digital Economy Act aims to protect. All in all, Mindgeek doesn’t seem that bad! And surely such a professional, responsible operation are the ones we should feel comfortable running an age verification network?

Hmm. I’ve been doing a bit of research over the past few weeks, and I’m starting to question whether Mindgeek is truly the altruistic company they’ve convinced our government they are.

Who Cares About the Competition?

Mindgeek’s business practices could fairly be described as a tad dodgy. Its free sites exist to generate revenue from their advertising network and to promote their own paysites. Check any of them out and you’ll find they’re littered with short clips from their ‘premium’ material (which is tacky as hell, to be honest). However, there is a lot of full, unedited content on there that rarely comes from their own sites. While I’m sure they would argue this is unintentional, part of PornHub’s success comes from undermining their competition by offering competitor’s content for free.

Adult actress and producer, Jenna Haze, has accused PornHub of putting her out of business. A similar accusation has been made on Twitter by Erika Lust. At the 2015 Adult Video News Awards (I think it’s their version of the Oscars?) several performers, producers and copyright lawyers criticised the inclusion of PornHub at the event.

Although a major website might have the resources to file daily copyright claims, smaller independent producers do not. Even if a site can get Mindgeek to remove their intellectual property that has been wrongly uploaded, it’s too late. Any number of browser extensions can facilitate downloading of copyrighted content. With the enormous amount of content across Mindgeek’s network of tube sites, the chance of an indie producer easily finding all of their stolen material is slim.

Squeezing Them Out

Given that Mindgeek will charge for the use of their adult verification service, and given that they also already offer competitor’s material for free, how do the smaller studios expect to survive this? The only obvious way is to sign up to a Spotify-style delivery system such as PornHub Premium. However, Mindgeek would then enlarge their market share while paying producers a fraction of what they would otherwise be making. Mindgeek then gets a monopoly and continues to use other people’s content to swell the power of its own brands.

Few people shed tears for porn companies. When Malibu Media, operator of erotica site X-Art, aggressively pursued torrenters and others who made their content available, a judge branded them copyright trolls, and the Internet gave no fucks. However, we shouldn’t be happy about porn sites running into difficulties. We’ve wrongly lumped all pornography into a singular category and concluded it is bad. Doing so ignores the simple fact that X-Art is not Brazzers. Brazzers is not Burning Angel. Burning Angel is not Evil Angel. Evil Angel is not Submissed and so on.

Style, tone, context and content are ignored, as is how responsible a producer is to their performers and their audience. There are as many types of porn as there are sexual proclivities. Forcing out a niche or small producer from the market only serves the interests of the mainstream studios. The perception is then skewed towards the mass market, highly profitable productions. Doing this is an attack on those who aren’t interested in the glossy but ultimately ridiculous fair. It also limits the freedom of expression for those who have perfectly harmless fetishes.

Getting the Money Shot!

If/when Mindgeek is given the licence to extend their age verification platform across non-adult sites, who pays for it? The GDPR does seem to recognise the difficulties and suggests that for some sites a simple “I’m Over [13/16/18], Honest ‘Guv!” checkbox will do. However, who decides? What are the criteria? Even if its based on traffic, a high-traffic website does not necessarily equate to a high income. Small, high traffic sites could be squeezed offline just as small adult entertainment companies will be.

Mindgeek also likes to rip off its own customers. Actually buying a subscription for the purposes of this post seemed a little much, so I scoured review sites such as Rabbits Reviews. I discovered a slew of complaints about Mindgeek upselling to access basic features. It seems that the majority of Mindgeek paysites demand not only a monthly subscription for access but a further subscription for downloading. Now, OK, I’m not wholly up on porn site etiquette, but I would expect downloads to be inclusive, right?

Visiting these sites, I could find no obvious reference to a membership of sometimes $30 a month not covering downloads. It seems, and user reviews confirm, that Mindgeek hides this little factoid behind the paywall. Even pay-to-win video games don’t try and deceive their customers to this extent! I have yet to find similar complaints about any other major producer. From what I can tell, every site doing this is a Mindgeek site. I wonder if they could upsell an age check?

No Sympathy?

Still, until such a time that the AV trial is extended beyond porn, the above only affects the smut consumers, right? So let’s look at the safety issue. That’s the whole point of age verification, right? We’ll ignore the problem posed by VPNs, torrents and such as I’ve covered those issues in-depth, both on here and in the Queer Privacy Book.

Remember I mentioned that Mindgeek operates its own payment processor? It’s called MBI Probiller. In 2012, Digital Playground suffered a breach during which full credit card details, including CVV numbers, were stolen. Fortunately, the group doing this did not release the numbers. In a statement, they said they did it for “the game”. Hackers targeted Brazzers and nabbed usernames, email addresses and passwords in plain text. I should point out that this hack targetted forums using third-party software. However, “for convenience”, subscribers to Brazzers automatically had a forum account created for them. Some pretty shoddy security here. YouPorn has also been hacked and plain text information leaked.

Of course, these attacks happened a few years ago when Mindgeek was still Manwin. However, it should cause some concern given recent events.

Digital Herpes

Earlier this year it was revealed that Mindgeek’s advertising network had been infiltrated with malware. For around a year, PornHub was displaying fake adverts to visitors which, if clicked, installed malware on a user’s device. Millions of users are believed to have been affected by this. I don’t know about you, but I’m not in a rush to trust a company with my most personal information who don’t even realise that their fucking ad network has digital herpes.

The network is called Traffic Junky, and like similar networks, it targets users based on their interests. That in itself isn’t problematic. I imagine if you’re a fan of big boobed Eastern Europeans, being served with relevant ads on PornHub might be quite handy (heh, get it?). However, given the GDPR looks to extend the remit of age verification beyond porn, Mindgeek could be poised to become the most prominent advertising network on the web, or at least in the UK.

After all, they log everything their visitors do so they can produce their fun little charts for the Daily Mirror. With age verification, they’ll now be able to link what people with identifiable information, even if they deploy some form of pseudonymity. Do we really want them to be doing that? And do we want an operation successfully targeted by hackers, more than once, to be storing this information?

Yay, Censorship!

Since we fucking love censorship in this country (Video Recordings Act, Obscene Publications Act, Audiovisual Media Services Regulations Act, Criminal Justice and Immigration Act, etc.) the BBFC have now been appointed moral arbiter of all things smutty. That means they’ll be working very closely with Mindgeek to block all the horrible sex acts such as facesitting which apparently is a danger to life. Whoever came up with that is doing it wrong; so very wrong.

However, the BBFC is unlikely to be able to control what Mindgeek get up to when it comes to collecting data. Sign up to Mindgeek’s AgeID and you should expect Mindgeek to make sure they know exactly what you’ve been browsing and build a complete profile of your interests. With no privacy requirements in the Digital Economy Act, they could conceivably create a database of users of AgeID and then sell access to that database to third-party providers. Those providers could then market directly to the individual.

This isn’t fanciful thinking. As an experiment, I signed up to a mailing list for one adult website. In the two months since doing so, I have received numerous offers from “partner” sites. If Mindgeek creates such a database, can we trust them to properly vet who has access to such a system?

Swiss Cheese Security

With such a Swiss cheese approach to security, giving this much control of personal data to people who historically couldn’t give a shit about protecting it is like entrusting the welfare of your cat to a rabid Doberman. How long before people’s private information is leaked? If the Investigatory Powers Act is a Snooper’s Charter, this is a Blackmailer’s Charter. Working with the BBFC only legitimises Mindgeek’s operations, and I’m not convinced that’s wise. If you must introduce age verification then why the hell would you allow Mindgeek to operate it?

Maybe Mindgeek does have the best intentions. Perhaps they aren’t planning to squeeze out the competition. Maybe their charges to independent producers won’t be extortionate. Heck, perhaps they’ll even fix their shitty business practices and their crap approach to security. Still, though, why are we not asking more questions about this?

Whose Data Will They Hold?

In future, the GDPR may even require everyone, adult and child, to be age-vetted due to issues regarding data processing and consent. It makes sense, in a way. There are different rules and regulations for processing data that non-adult sites will need to abide by. Knowing the age of a user will help with that, especially as there appear to be different age brackets (13, 16 and 18 for adult content).

If this happens, Mindgeek could know everything about your kid including when their 18th birthday is! When I turned 18, all the local nightclubs sent vouchers trying to get me to take my friends there for a party. Imagine it now! Mindgeek knows when your kid turns 18 and can just zip them over an email offering them a discounted sub to Twistys! You might think that’s absurd and hopefully, it is, but it becomes a possibility.

Therefore, I have to ask, if the UK is to be the safest place in the world to be online, what definition of safety are we using? Handing such power to Mindgeek doesn’t seem safe for users, for content producers, for websites and for an open and fair internet.

*** Thanks to Neil Brown who offered corrections for some of the content of this article ***

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