Pornhub’s new owner says it will defend sex workers

In the heat of a culture war around online access to sexually explicit content, Mindgeek, owner of Pornhub, was acquired Thursday by the private equity firm Ethical Capital Partners.

Pornhub is one of the largest adult entertainment websites on the internet and has faced intense scrutiny for previously hosting videos that depicted child sexual abuse. After a New York Times opinion piece criticized the platform, Visa and Mastercard suspended services from the site. Pornhub deleted all unverified content and changed who it allowed to upload to the site — but continued to struggle to shake its critics.

Despite the controversy surrounding Pornhub, Ethical Capital Partners' vice president of compliance, Solomon Friedman, said there’s massive “social, financial, and technological” value in sharing how Mindgeek hosts and moderates content about “sex-positive expression between consenting adults.”

Ethical Capital Partners will have “complete control” over its new assets, Friedman told NBC News. In a press release announcing the acquisition, the firm says it is seeking investment opportunities in industries requiring “principled ethical leadership.”

Friedman, a defense lawyer for almost 15 years, said he has worked on litigation related to investigating, detecting and deterring child sexual abuse material.

Mindgeek rarely spoke out in the years following the New York Times op-ed, but its new ownership is boldly asserting Pornhub’s right to exist.

According to Friedman, Mindgeek’s tools for screening content bad behavior were a “key reason” Ethical Capital Partners made the acquisition. Those include Mindgeek and Pornhub’s verified uploader program, a law enforcement portal and “a suite of tools” to screen content and track stolen content.

“We actually see enormous untapped opportunities in taking these tools and sharing them with the world,” Friedman said.

On average, in 2021 it took Pornhub slightly less time to remove reported child sex abuse material (CSAM) than other platforms, according to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC). Pornhub responded to three notifications of CSAM from NCMEC in less than five hours on average, compared to the total average from all websites, which was slightly more than 24 hours.

Out of 30 million reports of child exploitation to NCMEC in 2021, Pornhub submitted just over 9,000 reports, with Mindgeek’s other pornography websites submitting fewer than 100 reports combined.

Friedman said Ethical Capital Partners plans to support and center sex workers and sexually explicit content creators in discussions about legislation and regulation, including what payment processors like Visa and Mastercard do and don’t allow from sex workers and pornography websites.

“We have defended sex workers and we have seen the stigma,” Friedman said. “There is stigma and there is shame and that means there are discussions and debates happening in the absence of those who are most affected by it.”

The acquisition announcement has been greeted with optimism by adult stars and sex workers, Mike Stabile, the director of public affairs for the Free Speech Coalition, the adult industry’s trade association, said.

“At a time when the industry is under incredible attack, legislatively and culturally, it really helps to have one of the largest companies speak out,” Stabile said.

Along with announcing its Mindgeek acquisition, Ethical Capital Partners also announced the creation of an advisory board, which includes Dr. Val Webber, who holds a doctorate in community health and humanities. Webber has experience in the webcamming industry and hopes to reinforce the safety and health of performers and sex workers.

“My goal will always be that performer safety is never sacrificed for some other vision of safety,” Webber said. “It’s things like sexual health but also mental health in being constantly surveilled and constantly having your livelihood stripped away.”

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