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In a new lawsuit, more than 30 women accuse Pornhub of profiting from videos posted without their consent

Women accuse Pornhub of exploiting them
Lawsuit accuses Pornhub of operating like a criminal enterprise 08:45

Isabella says she was in high school and only 17 when her boyfriend coerced her into making a nude video.

She says she forgot about it until she was in college and received a text from a close friend: "I didn't know you did porn." She learned a link to that video had been anonymously posted on Pornhub without her knowledge or consent. 

"Immediately, I knew it was me. I mean, my face, my outfit — immediately," she said. "My heart dropped into my stomach."

Isabella, who is using a pseudonym to protect her identity, says Pornhub did not try to contact her to confirm her age or to ask whether the video had been consensual. 

CBS News spoke with four of the 34 women, including Isabella, who have joined a lawsuit against MindGeek, the company behind Pornhub and dozens of the world's most popular pornography websites.

The civil suit, filed Thursday, accuses the company of running a "criminal enterprise." Pornhub markets itself as a mainstream site for adult content and says it yields 130 million users each day — more than Netflix or Amazon. But the women suing the company have accused it of exploiting them for profit, hosting and promoting graphic videos of rape, revenge porn and even videos that depict child sexual abuse.

Isabella said more than 200,000 people ultimately watched the video — "including everybody at my college, pretty much," she said. 

"The view count on the video will forever haunt my dreams," she said. "Just knowing that that many people saw it really messed me up."

After learning how many people had seen her video on Pornhub, she said she battled with a sense of shame and worthlessness and had to transfer schools. She couldn't look in a mirror for six months and drew into isolation, she said, fearful that people at her new school would recognize her. 

And she struggled with the feeling that she'd brought this on herself. "It's taken me a long time to come to terms with the fact that I am a victim of something," she said.

The lawsuit alleges that Pornhub's business model is built around funneling online traffic to videos like Isabella's.

"This case is not about porn, it's about rape."

MindGeek owns and operates more than 100 pornographic websites, and its brands include Pornhub, RedTube, YouPorn and Xtube. MindGeek also owns porn production companies that create content, but for years, a majority of the content on Pornhub was uploaded by unverified users. MindGeek operates some paid-subscription sites, but Pornhub is free for anyone to access and earns money through advertising revenue and optional, premium subscriptions.

Isabella said she decided to join the lawsuit to protect other victims. A draft of the lawsuit says MindGeek "embraced under-age, non-consensual, and pirated content in its business" and claims the company "profited from content produced through human trafficking."

Michael Bowe, the lawyer representing the women, said the company has skirted rules that have long been in place to protect actors in the "traditional" porn industry, which requires producers to verify the age and identities of the people featured in videos.

"The online porn industry has essentially been the Red Light District of commerce," Bowe said. "This new industry of online porn, for the last 10 years, has been allowed by law enforcement, government entities, to operate by a different set of rules. Basically, no rules or oversight."

Bowe has spent the past year building a civil case against the company based on racketeering laws normally used to go after mobsters and drug gangs. 

Last December, after a wave of backlash over nonconsensual content on the platform, Mastercard and Visa blocked card users from making purchases on Pornhub. Under scrutiny, MindGeek announced an overhaul of its procedures and took down millions of videos uploaded by unverified users, deleting 80% of the content on its site. 

MindGeek CEO Feras Antoon testified before the Canadian House of Commons in February. Parliament of Canada

MindGeek executives also announced last year that they had removed the ability for users to download videos and added a requirement that people posting videos verify their identification.

"We are committed to eradicating illegal content," the company said in a statement to CBS News, adding that earlier this year, the company enacted "the most comprehensive safeguards in user-generated platform history." 

The statement said, "We have banned uploads from unverified users, eliminated downloads, expanded our moderation processes, and partnered with dozens of non-profit organizations around the world, steps that surpass those of any other major platform on the internet."

In a statement Thursday after the lawsuit was filed, MindGeek said the allegations in the complaint that Pornhub is a "criminal enterprise" are "utterly absurd, completely reckless and categorically false." 

During a February hearing before the Canadian House of Commons, MindGeek's CEO Feras Antoon decried online child abuse imagery. "Sexual material, child abuse material has no place on our platform. It makes us lose money," he said. "It completely ruins the brand that we have been trying to build for over a decade."

But the company still does not require its users to verify the identity or age of those featured in its videos, something that's standard in the traditional porn industry. The company also doesn't seek to confirm the consent of everyone who appears in videos posted to the site, a measure that victims of abuse believe would help keep nonconsensual content off porn sites.  

Some of the victims in the lawsuit told CBS News they joined after they discovered their non-consensual videos on Pornhub and reached out to an activist named Laila Mickelwait. In 2020, Mickelwait founded a campaign called Traffickinghub which started a petition to "Shut Down Pornhub." She told CBS News it now has more than 2 million signatures.

The new lawsuit says MindGeek "embraced under-age, non-consensual, and pirated content in its business" and claims the company "profited from content produced through human trafficking." CBS News

During testimony before the House Financial Services Committee in March, Mickelwait called Pornhub a "mega-sex trafficker," and said the site was infested with non-consensual pornographic content. "The company knowingly has enabled and profited from mass amounts of sex acts induced by force, fraud or coercion, and the commercial sexual abuse of children," she said.

Traffickinghub says it's "powered by" a religious organization called Exodus Cry, which has been criticized for its efforts to criminalize parts the sex industry and abolish pornography altogether. On its website, Exodus Cry advocates for laws to "end the sex industry" and "reduce the demand for commercial sex."

Pornhub's executives have said the company was designed to celebrate freedom of expression and empower adults. And in its statement Thursday, the company claims Bowe is a "soldier of the ultra-right wing effort to shut down the adult content industry." 

But Bowe said his goal isn't to ban online pornography, but rather, to force it to comply with regulations.

He told CBS News: "This case is not about porn, it's about rape. This is a legitimate industry that consenting people have every right to participate in. It just needs to be done legally and not with illegal content."

Of the 34 women suing the company, 14 said they were underage in videos uploaded to PornHub, and 14 were victims of people charged or convicted of sex crimes.

Taking down illegal content: "THAT IS ME and I am pissed."

One of those victims is Aubrey, who is also using a pseudonym to protect her identity. She says her ex-husband secretly recorded a video of them having sex, then uploaded it to Pornhub without her consent or her knowledge. The ex-husband now faces criminal charges of forcible rape, domestic assault and non-consensual dissemination of private sexual images by posting the video on Pornhub. 

Aubrey learned about the video from a friend in 2018, after she said it had garnered more than 400,000 views.

"I will never, ever be able to recover the emotional pain that this has caused me," Aubrey said. "It truly, truly was a living nightmare. I — I didn't — everybody had seen everything about me. And that's just — that's a very private moment. And it's a very vulnerable moment. And it's just — it's hard to come to terms with. That the world has seen that."

Aubrey said she struggled to convince Pornhub to remove her video. Emails reviewed by CBS News show that after she contacted the company to tell them the video was not taken consensually, a Pornhub representative challenged her.

He asked, "Are you the female in the video? How do you know this is you?"

Aubrey responded, "I know this is me by several things. That is my bed, I have a mole on my right hip, that is my face, my voice, THAT IS ME and I am pissed."

After a three-day exchange, Pornhub took down the video, but even then, Aubrey said she found it posted to other porn websites — renamed and re-uploaded, by users she didn't know.

She said she felt defeated to know that the video was still online. "I felt like everything was taken away from me. And I had no power. I had no say in it. I was completely powerless," she said.

One former executive, who worked at MindGeek before the company overhauled its policies, provided information included in the lawsuit against MindGeek. He said that illegal content was seen as "good" for business. He agreed to be interviewed on the condition of anonymity. He fears retribution.

He said the company favored keeping more content on the site. "I mean, if you offer everything on the site, there is something for everyone," he said. "The more you have, the better it is. So for all the free sites like Pornhub, more content is always better."

He said when content was flagged on PornHub, MindGeek often moved it to one of the dozens of other porn sites it owned. "Removed content popped up on all their other sites and no one really cared," he said. 

In its statement to CBS News, MindGeek said: "The spread of illegal content is an existential threat to the internet, and every platform has the moral obligation to join the fight against it. Illegal material on the internet harms its victims, internet users and all platforms that operate online. Any suggestion that the company tolerates or celebrates this material is patently false."

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, which investigates reports of child sexual abuse, told CBS News that MindGeek began reporting suspected child abuse to their Cyber Tipline in April 2020. CBS News

Child sexual abuse imagery on Pornhub

One victim, Michelle, who is using a pseudonym, said that she was targeted at age 15 by an abuser who has since been convicted of blackmailing children to sexually abuse themselves on camera.

She said he coerced her to take sexual photos and videos, which he later sold as "box sets" to other offenders. Some of those videos were uploaded to Pornhub, and from there, she said, they spread.

She said that the videos' uploads on Pornhub had "way, way worse" of an impact on her than even her blackmailer's initial abuse. "It was only when my videos went on sites like Pornhub that my life started to become something that I couldn't live out properly," she said, adding that she stopped eating, leaving the house and once attempted suicide. 

Michelle reported the videos to Pornhub during the fall of 2018 and continued flagging content for the site to take down throughout 2019. And although Pornhub took down all unverified content last year, Michele said she continues to find images of her abuse re-uploaded on other websites. She said, "Any other place I find my videos there's some type of mention of Pornhub or where they originated from, and my name was always with them." 

Strangers continue to contact her about her videos, she said, and one man even showed up at her house, telling her that he'd found her through Pornhub. 

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, which investigates reports of child sexual abuse, told CBS News that MindGeek began reporting suspected child abuse to their Cyber Tipline in April 2020, and throughout 2020, reported more than 13,000 instances of child sexual abuse imagery. In its statement, MindGeek said those reports represent approximately 4,000 unique incidents. 

"According to leading advocates, non-profits and third-party analyses, Pornhub's safeguards and technologies have proven effective," the statement said, adding that according to the center's data, one major social media platform was responsible for more than 20 million reports.

Despite that, the center said that victims and survivors who contact them "express frustration" with MindGeek's record in removing sexually abusive content, noting their expectations for MindGeek to take greater steps to proactively identify and remove the content from its site. 

The center added that it receives information from the public about suspected child sexual abuse imagery on MindGeek sites "on a daily basis."

"It's the people in the video that really need to be asked."

Another victim, Ashley, who is also using a pseudonym to protect her identity, said in August of last year, she learned that Pornhub was hosting a video of her being assaulted while unconscious. 

She said her then-husband drugged and raped her, and had posted the assault on Pornhub. The video was tagged "sleeping pills," and she says it had been on the site for three years and racked up tens of thousands of views before she learned of its existence.

Her abuser was arrested last week on charges of sexual assault, distributing intimate images without consent and indecent exposure. She said his arrest came as a relief, but she hopes MindGeek will be held responsible too.

Ashley said the changes the company made to their site last year, which require users to upload a government-issued ID in order to post content, may not have prevented a situation like hers. 

"Of course you have consent from the person uploading the video. They're the one uploading it," she said. "But it's the people in the video that really need to be asked."

Even after Pornhub deactivated the original video of her rape, she said the thumbnail image of the video, which shows her unconscious and naked, continues to populate in Google image search results to this day.

She said, "There shouldn't be anywhere safer in the world than at home in your own bed, right? And you shouldn't be able to go to bed one night and wake up on Pornhub."

The new lawsuit asks a federal court in California to order MindGeek to pay damages to the victims, an amount Bowe told CBS News that could be in the hundreds of millions of dollars. Victims who spoke with CBS News also hope the company will someday be held criminally responsible. 

"How would they like it if it was someone they loved? Their child? Their sister?" Aubrey said. "They've got to take steps to prevent this from ever happening to anybody ever again."

In its statement, MindGeek said: "Anyone who attempts to post nonconsensual imagery or child sexual abuse material on the internet is a criminal, and we are committed to remaining at the forefront of the internet when it comes to the elimination of illegal content. Every online platform has the responsibility to join this fight, and it requires collective action and constant vigilance. We hope other platforms will use our model to help eradicate unwanted content."

Jessica Kegu, Sara Cook, Martin Finn and Jennie Kamin contributed to this report. Video edited by Rob Kaplan.

CBS Reports presents "Speaking Frankly: Porn" 23:01
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