4 Dark Realities Of How Adult Entertainment Operates In 2020
Like most Cracked readers, you've probably never looked at porn, preferring to spend your days helping the elderly, organizing church bake sales, and escorting sinners to your compound's punishment shed. But Internet porn is booming during the coronavirus pandemic, since spending weeks in quarantine will leave even the stuffiest old schoolmarm frantically scrolling through Peruvian clown erotica in a desperate attempt to feel anything other than the suffocating passage of time. Which is unfortunate, because the modern porn industry has some pretty major problems.
And just as a disclaimer: these aren't fun problems, like the time history's most expensive gay porno turned out to be funded entirely by cocaine-fueled armed robbery. They aren't even particularly exciting problems, like when America's porn kingpin broke out of prison to hunt down his old partner in a cat-and-mouse game through Atlanta. Instead, porn has become just another corporate business dominated by big tech, which means that the same things that piss you off about Amazon are probably also true of whatever horrendous filth pit you're currently fighting off the urge to visit.
The Industry Is Controlled By A Few Amazon-Like Giants
Naturally, there are a huge variety of sites catering to the lucrative porn market. For example, if you've had a long day of jogging, eating granola, and rereading Rich Dad, Poor Dad, you might decide to unwind with a quick glance at PornHub. On the other hand, if you've spent an entire month huffing ether and exchanging gunfire with police helicopters, you might choose to visit Xtube. Except that the same company actually owns both those sites. And that other one. And that other other one too. And yeah, even that one. Damn, how many of these do you know?
Meet MindGeek, which sounds like the fun trivia board game responsible for your parents' bitter divorce, but is actually a massive holding company that quietly owns a wide array of porn sites (possibly also responsible for that divorce). The most popular MindGeek sites currently include PornHub, YouPorn, Redtube, Xtube, Brazzers, Men.com, Babes.com and Playboytv. By some measures, they're bigger players in video streaming than Netflix or Hulu. A number of other popular sites and production studios are owned by an even more blandly secretive company called WGCZ. Notably, these companies are both major producers of porn and its largest distributors through their free "tube" sites. Which is where the problems start.
A common complaint about Amazon is that it has an unfair advantage because it functions as both a marketplace and a vendor in that marketplace, allowing it to simply copy the best-selling products of third-party sellers. For example, when one company had a big hit with a car trunk organizer, Amazon employees analyzed their sales data and used it to launch and market a competing organizer. Similarly, companies like MindGeek have access to a mountain of user data from giant sites like PornHub, which they can mine for their own videos. By analyzing viewing patterns across literally millions of videos, MindGeek can even specify the exact color clothes performers should wear to increase views or encourage users to sign up for paid subscriptions.
This leaves many independent porn producers with similar concerns to Amazon sellers. Or let's say you're an aspiring singer-songwriter. You might want to release your new song through Spotify, Apple Music, or Soundcloud. Now imagine those are all secretly the same company, it's also the biggest record label on Earth, and every stream of your song can potentially be analyzed and fed straight to their in-house songwriters. Would your local pizza joint be happy selling through GrubHub if they also owned the competing Domino's franchise across the road? We say this every article, but somebody needs to be the Bolsonaro of this sex Amazon.
Rampant Piracy Drives Down Performer Income (But Enriches Big Companies)
Even though porn has grown in popularity, performers' income has actually decreased significantly over the last couple decades. In part, that's down to increased competition -- everyone has an easily usable camera on their phone now, whereas back in the day you had to trick a bunch of film students into thinking they were filming a very erotic pizza ad. But an even bigger problem is piracy, which is rampant on the major tube sites. People just aren't willing to give their credit card info to sexytugboatcaptains.tv when they can get the same videos on something like PornHub for free. Would you bother with a Netflix subscription if a bunch of recent hit movies were just sitting on YouTube?
The tube sites all say they take copyright infringement seriously, but studios and performers have frequently alleged that MindGeek and its rivals "force copyright holders to jump through hoops to get our content removed." Small studios and amateurs don't have the time or resources to constantly file takedown notices, especially since pirates can simply re-upload the video to a different part of the MindGeek empire. Meanwhile, many of the biggest studios, who would normally lead the fight against piracy, are actually owned by WGCZ or MindGeek, who are very unlikely to sign off on hiring a bunch of lawyers to sue themselves. A cynical mind might even speculate that MindGeek prefers pirated videos, since they get their tube revenue without having to pay competing studios their cut.
That might also explain why even the porn studios that MindGeek owns often seem to have trouble getting their pirated videos removed, which essentially means that one half of the company is helping steal from the other. This helps keep pay low for performers and employees. It's like if Sony gave up on fighting music piracy, merged with Limewire, and now Taylor Swift has to jump on Twitch every other day in order to make rent on her studio apartment. From a consumer perspective that might sound pretty great! But cheap express shipping also sounds great, it doesn't make it okay that Amazon keeps injecting its drivers with the adrenaline poison from Crank.
It's not that there isn't money in porn, the banana stand of industries. MindGeek makes hundreds of millions a year, while the owner of WGCZ supposedly replied to a $120 million buyout offer with "Sorry, I have to go and play Diablo II." Just like Uber disrupted the taxi industry by screwing over drivers, the secret behind the big porn giants has less to do with innovation and more to do with exploiting the aura of tech to pay their actual workforce less than ever before.
MindGeek's Algorithms Have The Same Oversight Problems As YouTube Or Facebook
Look, we understand that most people don't care that much about how companies use their data. ("Oh no, TikTok feeds all our bullshit dance crazes to the Chinese military, that'll definitely land the Spratlys for them.") But there are real concerns about data protection, especially when it comes to MindGeek, which reportedly collects more user data than tech giants like Netflix or Spotify. Which possibly isn't ideal behavior from the company that basically forced web browsers to invent the "private browsing" feature so that people would stop dragging a magnet over their laptop after every lonely Friday night.
The company has had several major data breaches over the years, leaking hundreds of thousands of usernames and passwords. But even if you never sign up for a paid account, MindGeek is absolutely obsessed with tracking your data, feeding it through artificial intelligence to predict user behavior and determine upcoming trends. The company also uses facial recognition and machine learning to automatically tag and categorize the millions of videos across their sites. Combined with their vast user data trove, this has allowed them to build recommendation algorithms designed to keep users on their sites as long as possible (we assume that's about 17 seconds on average).
But there's some question as to whether MindGeek are simply following user trends or creating them. An interesting comparison is YouTube's own recommendation algorithm, which has been criticized for promoting racist and fascist videos. Speaking to the Daily Beast, a former YouTube employee alleged that the algorithm favored "increasingly fringe content," turning the site into a "quiet powerhouse of political radicalization." PBS compared the results to junk food, as "algorithms learn to lure us in with sweeter, fattier, saltier foods--or more radical content--whatever continues to elicit that primal response."
It's no secret that porn has huge problems with racist, sexist and violent content, which MindGeek has never appeared particularly interested in cracking down on, so long as it doesn't break the law. One of PornHub's partner channels runs videos like "White Cops Track Down and F*** Black Deadbeat Dad," a sentence so astonishingly racist we assume it'll somehow end up a cabinet member. Do MindGeek's recommendation algorithms encourage this extreme content? It's impossible to say, since MindGeek, like Facebook and YouTube, doesn't release much info about their proprietary algorithms. Because if nobody knows if there's a problem, then there definitely isn't one.
There's A Huge Problem With Sexual Abuse And Harassment
Now, you might expect that having a couple of giant faceless megacorps running everything would have some advantages. For example, Twitter would never tolerate anyone using their platform to promote anime-themed fascism, and Facebook definitely isn't overrun with groups claiming you can cure autism by cracking open a car battery and drinking it like a coconut, right? Similarly, MindGeek claims to use its vast resources to aggressively screen out harmful and illegal content. Except that a couple of recent cases indicate that it's less of a screen and more of a "No Mosquitos Allowed" sign hanging outside the hemophilia ward.
Take GirlsDoPorn, an official "PornHub Content Partner" that was one of the top 20 channels on the site, earning hundreds of millions of views. Except that GirlsDoPorn was really a disturbing sexual exploitation ring that lured vulnerable women into appearing in videos by promising that they would only be released on DVD overseas, then immediately plastering their faces all over the Internet. In 2019, 22 women sued GDP, alleging fraud and sexual coercion. At least 100 other women quickly emerged with similar stories, including claims of rape and intimidation by GDP management.
After the lawsuit was filed, PornHub completely ignored it and continued to promote GirlsDoPorn. After Vice's Motherboard released a major story outlining the allegations from over 100 women, PornHub finally swung into action and took down GDP videos -- but only of the women suing the company. The rest of the GirlsDoPorn channel remained intact until the owners were arrested on federal sex trafficking charges. Even then it took MindGeek three days to get around to taking down the official PornHub channel and way longer to do anything about the dozens of pirated copies of GDP videos littering their tube sites. Three days! One of the owners of their heavily-promoted content partner was literally on the run as a fugitive sex criminal and they were like, "Meh, we'll take a look after the weekend."
The GDP videos stayed up even longer on WGCZ's XVideos, which rivals PornHub as the world's largest porn site. Since anyone can upload to the hugely popular tube sites, both WGCZ and MindGeek have major problems with revenge porn. Victims often complain that even if they get a video taken down, their abuser can simply re-upload a slightly edited version through a different account, leaving them playing whack-a-mole through various reporting forms. And MindGeek doesn't have a reliable system for confirming performers are consenting adults -- in one case, a missing 15-year-old was rescued after she was identified in at least 58 videos uploaded to PornHub. Elizabeth Warren's heavily guarded Arctic techdouche gulags can't come soon enough.
Top image: Oleg Elkov/Shutterstock