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Hunt for the porn king

Hunt for the porn king

As dozens of women accuse the world’s largest porn company of profiting from their abuse, listen to the full story of how we traced its secretive owner to his London mansion

Warning: this podcast refers to instances of serious sexual abuse.


transcript

Alexi Mostrous: Do you mind just driving to the end of the road and then turning around the corner? Thank you.

It’s 5.30 in the morning. I’m in an Uber on my way to a mansion that sits on one of London’s most expensive streets. 

Alexi: Just around here, just behind that Mercedes, please. Thank you very much. 

I’m going there because I want to speak to a man who lives there. I take a walk up and down the street, and then I settle about 20 metres away from the house, and I’m watching for any movement, any twitch of a curtain, any sign that the man I’ve been looking for might come out. And people are starting to notice. 

The people who live here aren’t just paying for underground swimming pools or marble hallways – they’re buying privacy, too. Just after 6am, a security guard comes up. Luckily, he’s friendly. And, thank goodness, so is his Alsatian.

Alexi: Can I meet the doggie? What’s your name?

Security guard: Denzel.

Alexi: Hey Denzel, how are you doing? This is a microphone – don’t eat it! What’s your name, sir?

Security guard: John.

Alexi: Mine’s Alexi. How long have you been working here?

But, soon, less friendly faces start to appear. A chauffeur polishing a Bentley warns me that all the houses around here have their own private security. “They’re watching you right now,” he says. 

Alexi: Hi, Katie. 

Katie Gunning: Morning. So have you been feeling a bit conspicuous?

Alexi: Why don’t we just park there for a minute? Just behind there… I was going to park where that telecoms van had parked, but it’s got the primary spot. So if it moves and we can swap… 

Katie: So which is the house?

Alexi: So, if you look back it’s on this side and it’s just about five houses down. You see where that blue Golf is? That blue Golf is just outside.

The man I’m there to meet is one of those rare people who leave almost no trace online. He’s the majority owner of a huge international company – a company that owns dozens of websites. One of those websites is the tenth most visited site in the world. 

It’s more popular than Amazon. More popular than Netflix. Three billion people visit it every month. I’m talking, of course, about online porn. 

It’s the porn business that provides the man I’m looking for with tens of millions of dollars in profit every year. But, until very recently, no one even knew that this man existed. And, to put it bluntly, I want to change that. Because it matters that we know who this man is, and how he runs his business. 

“The victims deserve justice, and he deserves to be held accountable for what he’s done. He’s been in hiding for so many years, but now he’s being exposed. He should be held accountable for what has taken place.”

Laila Mickelwait

It matters because online porn is facing a reckoning. It’s accused of facilitating and broadcasting the abuse of women, and of allowing torrents of abusive imagery to saturate the internet – and yet we still know almost nothing about the men behind this industry. 

I’m here to find a man called Bernd Bergmair, the primary owner of MindGeek – a huge Canadian porn company – and the company that runs Pornhub, the world’s number one porn site. 

I’m Alexi Mostrous, and I’m going to tell you about my hunt for the world’s biggest pornographer. 

Starting the hunt

For years I’ve been reporting on the big tech companies, and how, all too often, they allow abuse to appear on their platforms. I’ve exposed how child abuse material is traded on Facebook and how YouTube placed ads for big brands on videos posted by Isis.

“Pepsi Co, AT&T, Johnson & Johnson and McDonald’s. Those are just a few of the corporate giants that have pulled their advertising dollars from YouTube in the past 2 weeks. The boycott came about after an investigation by the Times newspaper in Britain… Alexi Mostrous is head of investigations at the Times and one of the reporters who broke the story…”

News report

But like everyone else, in focusing on the major social platforms, I’d missed one that attracts almost as many viewers – but which receives only a fraction of the scrutiny. 

MindGeek is a company that runs websites – and its biggest is Pornhub. It works in pretty much the same way as YouTube does, except, instead of cat videos and epic fails, it’s porn.

Both sites use big data to attract as many viewers as possible. Both make money through advertising. And crucially – like YouTube – Pornhub allows anyone who wants to, to upload content. That means that an avalanche of porn gets uploaded to the site every day. In fact it’s nearly 15 terabytes every 24 hours. That’s about half of the entire Netflix library. 

And this creates a massive problem: how do you make sure that abusive material doesn’t get through? In Pornhub’s case, the answer seems to be: you don’t. 

“It was part of its business model to explicitly not filter this stuff out. And there was a reason for that, because it was all about search engine optimisation.”

Mike Bowe

Pornhub has been around since 2007. But it was only recently, in fact, that people started questioning how it works. 

In December 2020, the New York Times columnist Nick Kristof published a bombshell report called ‘The Children of Pornhub’. 

“Visa and Mastercard say they are investigating their business relationship with Pornhub, which is owned by Montreal based MindGeek. That’s just some of the response to a New York Times column on the alleged sexual assault of minors on Pornhub. Nicholas Kristof wrote the piece…”

News report

Kristof alleged that Pornhub was saturated with rape videos, that it monetised child rape content, revenge porn and racist content. The details in the story were damning – and hard to read. 

Kristof found videos on Pornhub where men abused unconcscious women, touching their eyeballs to show they were incapacitated. And he quoted from victims who said their lives had been ruined after videos of their abuse were posted on the site. Visa and Mastercard quickly pulled their services.

For me, though, what interested me most in the Kristof story was what it didn’t say. Nick Kristof said that the money men behind the company – the owners of Pornhub – were unknown.

Then came February this year, when leaders of MindGeek – two men called Feras Antoon and David Tassillo – appeared before Canadian MPs to face allegations that child pornography was on their flagship website.

“Just on Monday, this committee heard from a witness that she tried to get removed explicit videos of her when she was 13 years old that were on Pornhub without her consent. I guess it is the case that MindGeek or any of its at least 48 subsidiaries has monetized child sexual abuse and non-consensual material…”

Congressional hearings

Feras Antoon defended MindGeek, telling the MPs that he had created a very good product that he was proud of. 

For me, though, one short bit of his testimony stood out. 

“Who is the European national?”

Feras Antoon: “His name is Bernd Bergmair and he owns over 50 per cent.”

Congressional hearings

This was the first time that Antoon – or indeed any representative of MindGeek – had named the man who is the group’s majority owner. And that… that was a big moment. We had a name.

Bernd Bergmair. 

Now I should say that the Financial Times had previously published a misspelt version of that name – the Bernd Bergmair name – but what Feras Antoon did in February went much further. This was confirmation straight from the horse’s mouth. And no one – no newspaper – had managed to discover any details about the mysterious Bernd Bergmair. There was no photo of him, beyond a blurry 20-year-old picture. No one knew what he looked like or where he lived. No one knew what he thought of the allegations being levelled against Pornhub. 

I mean… imagine no one knowing who Mark Zuckerberg was, or who Jeff Bezos was, and not being able to find photos of them online.

And it’s not just Bergmair who operates in secrecy. MindGeek’s spokespeople regularly used fake names. Although it’s supposed to be a Canadian company, it’s based in tax havens like Luxembourg and Cyprus, with little corporate transparency. 

Bergmair, to me, seemed to be the ultimate expression of this corporate opacity: a man who, despite considerable power in the porn industry, had kept himself completely out of the public eye. 

As a newsroom, we’d been looking at the world of online porn for over a year, holding Open News meetings with our members to try and figure out what this story was, and where to look. But after these revelations, it became very clear to me that finding out who Bernd Bergmair is really matters. As a journalist, and to the growing number of women who were accusing Pornhub of causing serious harm. But I couldn’t do it alone.

“I found this on the web.”

Alexi: Jesus, that’s my Alexa. 

I need to introduce two reporters, Patricia and Xavier. They’re working with me on the story and you’re listening to us sitting in our newsroom, at Tortoise, at the start of this investigation.

Alexa, sadly, couldn’t help us. 

Xavier Greenwood: It was only December that anyone really knew he existed. The Financial Times ran this article describing the secret major owner of MindGeek as this man called Bernard Bergemar. And then a couple of months later, the Globe and Mail – the Canadian newspaper – ran a follow-up and they gave some more info. So they said his name was also spelt Bernd Bergmair, which I think is how we should probably refer to him.

Alexi: B-E-R-N-D?

Xav: B-E-R-N-D B-E-R-G-M-A-I-R – and that he was an Austrian man. They refer to corporate records, and they say the corporate records describe him as being from Linz, which is a small city in Austria, born in 1968. So 52 or 53. And being resident in China.

China seemed odd. MindGeek doesn’t have any operations in China. Their head office is in Canada, and they’ve got links with Luxembourg and Cyprus and various other countries. But not China. 

Alexi: And we don’t know why Bergmair is in China, or could be, in China?

Xav: No, we don’t know anything at all apart from his date of birth, where he was born, where he is possibly resident now, and then the last thing which the Globe and Mail described was a single blurry photo. And that was in an alumni publication for the University of Chicago.

Alexi: Which he attended? 

Xav: Yes, so me and Patricia looked for that photo and we found this publication from 2002 for Chicago Business School. And he is there in this heavily pixelated photo.

Patricia: So if you have a look at the picture, you can see that the more you zoom in the blurrier it gets. It’s got a list of names, but it’s a crowd of people. We think that he’s possibly the guy in a blue top and glasses, possibly the guy in a nice suit…

It’s thin pickings. But the Luxembourg connection and any Chicago alumni might be a good starting point… 

I sent Xav off to try and contact anyone that might have known Bergmair in Chicago, Patricia was speaking to victims, and I wanted to build the backstory – how did MindGeek become the porn giant it is today?

Free porn

The story of online porn could take up a whole podcast series in itself. But the takeover of the porn industry by ad-funded free sites will be familiar to any of us with a Spotify or Netflix account. 

Remember Blockbuster video? Well, the traditional porn studios went the same way after sites like Pornhub came along. They had to go digital, or go bust. 

“The press loves to call me the king of porn… even though I don’t look like the king of porn – at least I hope I don’t. Not negative, not positive, whatever…”

Fabian Thylmann

That’s a man called Fabian Thylmann… He’s the porn equivalent of Mark Zuckerberg. A young programmer from Germany who transformed an industry – and he did it by developing a piece of software that allowed websites to track the behaviour of users. The tech industry loved it – and it made Fabian a lot of money. 

So he began to buy up porn sites, and in 2010 he did his biggest deal yet – buying a Canadian porn group for $140 million.

Fabian: I managed to find a company in Montreal and they owned Pornhub, and they were ready to sell. Their owners, a group of five guys, didn’t want to be in the business anymore. Their wives didn’t want them to be in the business anymore…

Fabian renamed the company Manwin, but he wanted to expand – and to do that he needed more cash. All the main investment houses turned Fabian down, but eventually he persuaded a small New York fund named Colbeck Capital, made up of former Goldman Sachs executives, to give him a loan.

Fabian: Eventually we found a hedge fund. They even gave us much more than we expected. So we got a financing package of about $362 million at a very, very steep cost, which if I were to tell you, you would all fall over and think I’m crazy.

Around the same time that Fabian Thylmann was taking loans off Colbeck, another porn giant was emerging, this time from Austria.

“Hey, I’m Dirty Cupid. I’m the new Redtube.com front man…”

Advertisement audio

This was RedTube. The brainchild of two students called Stefan Jager and Michael Polacek. It launched in 2006 and was an instant success.

“I want to make sure you get some sweet lovin’. I’ll be your expert on romance, relationships, and of course sex.”

Advertisement audio

Soon there was an opportunity for a new investor to come in. And it was an unassuming, well-dressed Austrian guy calling himself Bernard. 

Former Colbeck employee: After one or two years, I think Stefan Jager wanted to drop out of the company because he got a new girlfriend and she was very Catholic… and he changed his way in life. Stefan Jager dropped out and Michael was looking for someone who he can sell the project [to]. In the end it turned out that he found an investor – in this case it was Bernard.

That’s a former employee at the company that Stefan and Michael ran – the one that owned RedTube. And it’s the first time anyone has revealed any details about how Bernd Bergmair got into porn. The employee said that Bergmair invested heavily in RedTube and helped Michael grow the site.

At this stage Bergmair – we know – is one of the senior people in RedTube, and then, in 2013, he ends up selling it. And he sells it to that huge porn conglomerate, Manwin. The one, you remember, that was run by Fabian Thylmann, who’d raised all that money from the former Goldman Sachs people.

By this time, though, Fabian had problems of his own. He was being investigated for tax evasion and was under pressure to sell. So he sells Manwin to his number two guy – a Syrian programmer called Feras Antoon, who renames the company MindGeek. 

So just to recap, you’ve now got a porn giant called MindGeek – which includes both Pornhub and RedTube. And Bernd Bergmair has secured himself a large stake. 

MindGeek 

Alexi: Hi guys. Right, I have got some very exciting news to tell you, but first of all, why don’t you tell me what you got? 

Since we had last sat in the room together, Xav has been scouring the alumni directory for Chicago…

Xav: So the Globe and Mail said that he was from Linz, and we have a more specific location from the alumni page – Ansfelden. Ansfelden is an area just outside Linz. It’s, I think, probably hard to describe. So I’m going to show you a picture.

Alexi: I’m imagining kind of… Sound of Music, green grass and cows.

So we now had a more precise location for the town Bergmair was from: Ansfelden. But I had also found something good.. 

Alexi: So there’s this actor called Michael Teh who has posted a series of pictures of a guy called Bernd Bergmair – roughly the same age. A rich lifestyle appears – the photos that I’ve found… they show him like dressed up in fancy dress at this kind of, like, 18th-century party in the Hollywood Hills.

There’s lots of little clues that maybe this is our man. Oh and possibly the most interesting thing of all. We thought that he lived in China, right? Well, his Facebook says New York, New York. So his Facebook only has six friends and is a private profile. So if it wasn’t for Michael Teh, you wouldn’t see it.

Patricia: How do we know that it’s actually him? Because no one else has ever seen any pictures of him. So if this is him, it’s pretty huge. 

Patricia’s right. I may have found someone who fitted Bergmair’s profile on Facebook, but we needed to verify that it was the right guy. The actor, Michael, he loves a hashtag, and on one of the photos is #austria.

[Audio in German]

So we ask a freelance journalist, Nikolai Atefie, who works with an investigative magazine in Austria called Dossier, to take a trip to Ansfelden – the small town outside Linz.

Nikolai: I called a guy who used to live in the neighborhood, and he actually knew quite a lot about Bernd. A fun anecdote he told me is that Bernd actually comes in the summer to help harvest grains, mainly wheat. And the way to spot him on the field is that he would always wear a white shirt – even on the harvesting machine – and jeans or dark pants.

We learn a bit more about Bernd’s family too: 

Nikolai: The family of Bergmair is growing sugar beets and cereals. Before it was the parents that took care of the farm, but now it’s Bernd’s brother. And my source said that Bernd needs him like a piece of bread – he said literally, which is an Austrian saying, I guess. The mother, I heard, is quite conservative. I was told that she does not appreciate her son being so rich, and it’s uncomfortable. Though, for me, it’s not clear if she knows that her son is making big money in the porn industry.

So at this point we were making real progress. We had found up-to-date pictures of someone we thought might be Bergmair on Facebook, and had some interesting background from Austria. 

And then, a few days later, another breakthrough. We find Bergmair’s partner, a woman called Priscila, on Instagram. 

“Hey everybody. I’m going to show you how I make my pictures. Everyone says I make really nice pictures…”

Priscila

Priscila is pretty much the opposite of her husband when it comes to online privacy. She’s a Brazilian model, for one thing. Her Instagram is a cascade of glamour: bespoke dresses by Karl Lagerfield, huge diamonds, holiday snaps from yachts in Mediterranean harbours. She’s living her best life. 

And this is great for us. Because even though she’s definitely not the story, we’re seeing potentially really valuable clues that could tell us more about her partner: pictures of more houses in Austria, names of relatives, trips she’s taken to Italy, Greece, the Seychelles – they all could lead us closer to Bernd.

But the most exciting thing about her Instagram page isn’t actually a picture. It’s one word in her profile description: London.

You see, we started off thinking that Bergmair was in China. And then we found his flat in Hong Kong. And then we found his Facebook page which suggested he was based in New York. Now we were faced with the prospect that our target could be much closer to home.

Could it really be that the king of Pornhub was living just miles away from our newsroom? It almost seemed too good to be true. 

Now, a funny thing happens to reporters at this stage of an investigation. When you’re closing in on a target – like we seemed to be – you get tunnel vision. You get excited. You start texting each other on Saturday nights, comparing Instagram photos and swapping theories. And there’s a danger that everything becomes about the hunt, about finding your man. And I’ve been in enough of these investigations to know that that can be a problem. You can lose sight of the bigger picture. What I’m trying to say is that – now we were getting closer to finding Bergmair – there was a danger that we’d forget the broader question. 

Why does he matter? Because, to be honest, even Bernd Bergmair has a right to privacy. Were we really justified in trying to unmask one man just because he held a large investment in a private company?

And the answer, for me at least, lies in one word – harm. Dozens of women and girls have alleged that Bergmair’s porn empire has caused them real and long-lasting harm. MindGeek has effectively been accused of criminal negligence – of knowingly failing to prevent abusive content. 

It’s the accusations of harm that give this story its public interest – and, in my mind, override Bergmair’s desire for anonymity. 

Laila Mickelwait: There’s just no way that they’re vetting seven million videos uploaded to Pornhub every year.

That’s Laila Mickelwait. She’s an anti-trafficking campaigner. She’s been raising the alarm about MindGeek for more than a year now…

Laila: There was a case of a 15-year-old girl in Florida who was found to be raped and abused in 58 videos on Pornhub. She had been missing for a year, and her mother was tipped off because somebody had seen the girl on Pornhub.

And so I read that and I said, there’s just no way that this is something that is being vetted. And I tried it for myself one night after I put my baby to bed. I stayed up and I said, I’m going to do a test [of a] content upload. And I found out what millions of people would have already known, but nobody had brought to the world’s attention – that the most popular porn site in the world was not verifying age or consent.

Alexi: You tried to upload content? What happened?

Laila: You create an account in under 10 minutes. All you needed to create an account was an email address. And so, then you can have a video file and you can upload that to the site and it goes live. And there’s no, “Who are you? Who is in the video? Who, you know… did they consent? Do they…?” You know, there’s none of that. It was just an instantaneous upload. 

As Laila says, until recently, anyone with a valid email address could upload content to Pornhub. They didn’t have to prove they were over 18, or verify their identity.

It’s an obvious question: why would MindGeek have such a policy, if it led to the risk of harmful material being uploaded?

The answer lies in the economics behind free tube sites, as they’re known. MindGeek makes 50 per cent of its money from advertising – and the rest from premium subscriptions. The more visitors that they can attract – the more money they make. And last year, MindGeek brought in revenues of close to $450 million.

Mike: It’s very simple. The more content you have, the more people who come to the site, the higher your Google hits were going to be. And it was always an arms race between them and others in the industry to see who would become the MacDaddy of the pornography industry – and Pornhub won that race.

That’s Mike Bowe, a US trial lawyer who spent decades representing big financial clients like Goldman Sachs. Now he’s going after Pornhub. 

Mike: And they won that race by not limiting anything they had on there and not putting in filters sufficient that would actually police the website, because to do so would filter out content, would slow down the uploaded content, would put them at a disadvantage.

In short, what Laila and Mike are telling me is that these videos of someone else’s trauma – well, they make money for MindGeek, and for its majority owner Bernd Bergmair. 

Mike: They understand what’s on their website like Nasa understands what’s on a space capsule in space. 

Feras Antoon, the Pornhub CEO, told the Canadian MPs that safety was MindGeek’s “top priority”. He said that human moderators watch every single video uploaded to the site. 

But when you look at the amount of content uploaded, and you compare that to the number of moderators Pornhub employed – the disparity makes me question just how robust a system this could be. 

Mike: MindGeek, at times, had as few as six and no more than 30 moderators for the entire site of all the uploading. They were based in Cyprus, they were paid minimum wage. Their turnover was huge.

We’ve talked to them, we’ve talked to whistleblowers who were there. Even though MindGeek said they reviewed everything, it is mathematically impossible for them to review the content, right?

But it’s not only a lack of moderators that was the problem. 

Mike: Until very recently, you could punch in words like child rape or rape, child porn, CP, code words, all these sorts of things. And you would get a result, you would get videos. 

Alexi: And just to be clear, some of those videos would be consensual adult interactions, but I suppose your point is some of them wouldn’t be.

Mike: Absolutely. Some of them would be consensual adults… but those searches would also return actual illegal content. And then the algorithm for MindGeek would give you suggested other things to look at.

Just like on Netflix, or YouTube, when you watch a video on Pornhub, the website tries to keep you on the site by suggesting “related content”. 

After Nick Kristof’s New York Times investigation, Pornhub deleted 80 per cent of its videos – the ones posted by unverified users. It also made it impossible for users to search for terms like “rape” and “13 year old girl”. 

But even after the changes were made, it didn’t take me long to discover that Pornhub’s algorithms are still at work. And I need to warn you here, I’m about to talk through some examples of extreme and upsetting pornography. 

One video I found earlier this month is called “extremely painful anal sex”. Underneath that video, Pornhub’s algorithms suggested other content, including “She hates anal but will learn to like it”, “no mercy anal”. And perhaps the worst one – a video called “She is crying in pain”.

Yes, the performers could be consenting in these cases. But to me, it’s hard to justify an algorithm that recommends videos of young women screaming in pain. Especially when you compare all this to Pornhub’s public image…

“My friends at Pornhub and I think everyone should be having great sex. Especially when that sex is so crucial to saving the planet.”

Pornhub advertisement

Put bluntly – it has a great PR team. 

“Beesexual is a whole new genre of porn dedicated to saving the bees…” 

Pornhub advertisement

Pornhub puts a lot of effort into projecting an image of a cheeky, libertarian, sex-positive company. This January, for instance, it launched a sex-stainability campaign to help save the environment. 

“Pornhub presents sex-stainable jerk-off instructions, a brand new way to get off and help save the world at the same time. We created a whole new genre of jerk-off instruction videos featuring Pornhub’s hottest models, telling you how you can make a real difference in helping save the environment.”

Adult performer: “Say you’ll do everything you can to reduce single use plastics…”

Pornhub advertisement

You’ve got to admit – that’s quite good. But the more I looked at MindGeek, and its algorithms, the more these campaigns seemed to be a smokescreen for something much darker.

I’d asked Patricia to focus on finding victims to speak to. It wasn’t an easy task: some women spoke to her for hours and then changed their minds about participating. Others didn’t want to speak on the record at all. 

Eventually, Patricia did find someone willing to talk. 

Patricia: Hi Kelly, how are you? How’s your day been? 

Kelly Lanzafame: Good. What about you? 

Kelly Lanzafame is one of the victims of a sex site called GirlsDoPorn. 

GirlsDoPorn told women that their explicit videos would never be released in the US and only sold on DVD to private buyers. In fact the site had a partnership with Pornhub, where the group posted videos which were seen more than 700 million times. 

Kelly: So it said it was an adult photo shoot and you would get paid $5,000 for one photo shoot. And so I was like, “Why not?” I don’t remember exactly what I was thinking. I was just being impulsive.

Patricia: It sounds like that’s quite an appealing thing, $5,000, if you’re behind on rent.

Kelly: Yeah, and that’s the thing, I don’t want to put all the blame on other people because I made that choice and I am aware that I am a very impulsive person and I don’t think things through a lot. 

He was very friendly over the phone and was telling me all of these great things. And that’s when he told me it was going to be sex – like it was going to be a video. He was like: “I have a bunch of references I’m going to give you, these girls are going to FaceTime you and tell you how great an experience this is.” And these girls were paid to do this. So these girls were fake, like they were hired to deceive us.

Patricia: Do you remember how you felt that first conversation with him? 

Kelly: This part I have a hard time explaining because it’s like I willingly did it, but I think they are such professional manipulators – it’s like once they had me, they knew exactly what to say to get me to go all the way to the finish line. The number one thing in my mind was that I needed that money or else I was going to get evicted. 

Patricia: Can you tell me… how did you feel when you discovered that your videos were out there? 

Kelly: Oh my gosh. Well, I would say that the public humiliation I got from this was also one of the hardest things that I’ve ever had to go through. I mean, I don’t know how anything can spread as fast as it spread. The video was spreading on all porn platforms.

I’ll be honest with you – listening to Kelly was hard. The GirlsDoPorn site was truly terrible – several people involved in it have since been charged with sex trafficking. But what’s just as shocking to me, almost, is that even after 22 GirlsDoPorn victims filed a lawsuit against that company, it took Pornhub more than two months to remove the videos.

Even today it only takes me one quick Google search to access GirlsDoPorn videos, which are now hosted on other websites. 

The damage done to Kelly and others is permanent. But what’s also clear is that Kelly’s is far from an isolated case. Over the past year, Laila has been contacted by more than hundred women.

Serena Fleites: I’m one of the people who ended up homeless, ended up dropping out of school, ended up on drugs, completely detached from my family.

That’s Serena Fleites. She’s 19 now, but when she was 14 she made a video for a boy she was dating, and he posted it to Pornhub.

It appeared on the site with the caption, “13-year-old brunette shows off for the camera”.

This is Serena talking to the Canadian Ethics committee – the same committee that heard that Bernd Bergmair was MindGeek’s major owner.

Serena: I ended up trying to kill myself many times. I ended up in mental hospitals. There were instances where the video would have literally 2.7 million views, and it would still be on Pornhub despite hundreds of comments saying: “Oh, this is definitely child pornography. That girl can’t be any more than 14, 13.” And yet Pornhub still wouldn’t take it down, even when I messaged them multiple times it would take forever. And then, when I did get a response, they would hassle me for all these other details and I would have to go through the whole process of sending them pictures of me with my face next to my ID, over and over again, to prove that, yes, that video is child pornography. And even then, even after I proved all of that stuff, it would still take a while for them to take it down, which would gain hundreds of thousands more views.

Serena is not alone in fighting against a seemingly faceless, unaccountable platform.

Laila: It’s one thing to experience an act of rape or abuse as a child or an adult, but it’s another thing for that rape and abuse to be uploaded to the world’s most popular porn site and made downloadable to 115 million visitors per day. And knowing that, because it can be downloaded, it could be screen recorded – and it is – even if they get it down once it just will get put up again and again and again. And so they live in this perpetual fear, this perpetual terror. I call this image-based sexual abuse a form of terrorism against primarily women, but also men sometimes.

I should say that MindGeek strongly denies any wrongdoing. Its executives told the Canadian MPs they were committed to doing more to safeguard users and performers, and that they used cutting-edge technology and human moderation to prevent abusive content from appearing on their sites. In the case of some of the victims, MindGeek said it tried to contact them for additional information but didn’t receive anything in return. 

Closing in

Alexi: Hello? 

Patricia: Hey Alexi. 

Alexi: Hey Patricia.

Patricia: Can you hear me properly? 

Alexi: Yeah, I can hear you fine. 

Patricia: Is now a good time to talk? 

Alexi: Uh, now is quite a good time to talk.

We were back on the hunt for Bergmair. 

Patricia’s been looking into the Chicago Business School alumni, using that [2002] photo as a starting point.

Patricia: We’ve gone out and contacted 50-plus people. And most people said no, some said that they knew him, but they didn’t want to talk, but I’ve just got off the phone to someone who very excitingly has confirmed that the picture that you found is of the same Bernd Bergmair who graduated from Chicago Business School.

Alexi: Fantastic. How sure are they? Like 80 per cent, or 100 per cent?

Patricia: Certain.

This is pretty crucial. It doesn’t tell us anything new – but it confirms that the pictures we’ve found on Facebook are of the Bernd Bergmair.

Patricia’s contact also sent her a message: 

Patricia [reading the message]: “I knew Bernd quite well at GSB, as it was called then. I think the last time I saw him in person was probably the summer of 1996, when he was working as an associate at Goldman in NYC. I’m not a hundred per cent sure whether we’ve ever corresponded since that time. Not that I haven’t thought of him now and then. He was a compelling personality, and I had little doubt that he would be financially successful. As you have indicated, he kind of fell off the radar pretty soon after business school. And by the way, he went by Bernd. I never heard him called Bernard or Bernhard.” 

Yet the former employee of RedTube is equally convinced he was called BernARD. 

It adds up to a picture of someone who doesn’t want to be found… which seemed hypocritical, to say the least, given what numerous women were saying about how they were being publicly shamed on the site he owns. 

Serena: I had messaged Pornhub to get the video taken down. I tried to deal with it on my own. I pretended to be my mother. I flagged it, and I said: “Hey, this is my daughter. She’s only 14. This is child pornography. Please take this down.” They took a week or two to respond. Once they finally responded, they were like, “Yes, okay, we’ll take it down”, and then proceeded to wait another two weeks before they finally did take it down.

Victoria Galy: Upon finding these videos in 2018, the first thing I tried was to flag them. This led me nowhere. The videos were not removed.

At times I was suicidal. After 16 years with one law firm as a paralegal, I had to take a leave of absence as I could no longer function on a daily basis nor make it through even one day at work. I left my house. I moved in with my mother for approximately four weeks so she could help me care for my children.

That’s Serena again – and another victim, a woman called Victoria Galy. Both say they struggled to get Pornhub to remove explicit images of them from the site. Images which had been uploaded without their consent. There was seemingly little concern for their anonymity.

Bernd’s former classmate: Hello? 

Xav: Hi. 

Bernd’s former classmate: How are you?

Xav: I’m good, thank you. Where are you at the moment? 

Bernd’s former classmate: Walking down…

Xav’s found another former classmate who’s happy to chat: 

Bernd’s former classmate: He had an accent – a Germanic languages accent. I mean, I couldn’t tie him down to – was it a Viennese accent or a Salzburg accent or a Tyrolean accent. I remember he was an individual whose academic standing probably placed him in the top 2 per cent of the class at the University of Chicago’s Business School.

Like the other Chicago graduate who spoke to Patricia, Bergmair’s old classmate painted a picture of a seriously bright individual who could have done anything…

Bernd’s former classmate: Anyone else couldn’t have pulled it off. However, he split his summer – half of it with Goldman Sachs, half of it with McKinsey. That’s almost unheard of. He was that well sought after, because of his academic prowess, that he could do that. Just about no one else could. 

We were getting a much better sense of who this guy is. More than anyone else had managed to find out. Now we just had to find him. But how do you find one man in a city of nine million people? 

Alexi: So Xav has just sent me a text saying that he’s got some information and asking me to give him a call. So I’m going to do that.

Xax: Hello?

Alexi: Xav, it’s Alexi. Your text was very exciting. 

Xav: Yeah, I am quite excited. So I think I found something. Obviously last time we talked you had just found the Instagram account of Priscila and, you know, we found some pictures in London and some pictures from a garden. I’ve been racking my brain to figure out how we can get a more specific location from those photos. You probably know this, but when you take a photo, there are bits of information that are attached to it…

Xav’s talking here about Exif data. Exif data tells you things like shutter speed, or if a flash was used. But it can also tell you exactly where the photo was taken. Instagram and Facebook strip that data out. 

Xav: I found a blog and I think it’s her blog, because some of the photos on Instagram are also on this blog. And you know, it’s the same kind of vibe as the Instagram. It’s got a lot of modeling shots and flashiness. And so I started plugging them into this program, which shows you the Exif data behind the photos. So I’ve probably done about 30 or 40 today. Got nothing at all. And then finally, not just coordinates but exact coordinates. 

Alexi: The exact address?

Xav: Yeah. It comes up with the exact address. 

This is extraordinary. Because plug those coordinates into Google Earth and you can zoom right in. A bit of searching brings up more detail. A development company had just finished refurbishing the house – and the company helpfully posted pictures of the interior online. It’s definitely the same house as the one on Priscila’s blog. 

And that’s why you find me on that smart street early on a Monday morning, waiting and watching. I was there to finally try and get answers from Bernd Bergmair.

The curtains are still drawn, but since I arrived someone has pulled up a window blind on the first floor, by just a few inches. At half past eight, there’s movement…

Katie: Hold on, hold on, hold on, hold on, is that him? 

Alexi: I think that’s him. Yes, it is.

Mr Bergmair? Hi, I’m very sorry to disturb you at your house. I just wondered if I could ask you a few questions about MindGeek. Do you mind? We’re producing a story about MindGeek, sir, and a lot of the victims on Pornhub are… a lot of the victims are very anxious to hear what you think about how Pornhub allowed lots of horrible videos to be on their site. So do you have anything to say? 

We spoke to your friends in Chicago, sir, and they said that you were a very smart guy, but they’re puzzled about how you got to where you got to. So we just want to work out – sir, please don’t walk away. Please answer my questions, Mr Bergmair. How did you get into MindGeek, sir? What do you think about all the allegations against Pornhub? 

Do you have anything to say to the women? To the victims? No? Okay.

He didn’t say a single word. 

Katie: But because of the pictures on Facebook, we can be very clear it was him. He looked exactly like the images that you found. 

Alexi: It was exactly him. It was definitely him. Jesus. I think my heart is still beating. He looked really angry. Just genuinely shocked that we’d found him and really angry that he was being asked questions. 

I hadn’t quite believed that he really would be there. But there he was, standing in front of me – just another middle-aged guy, wearing a black anorak and dad jeans – refusing to answer any of my questions. And that… that was it. I felt weirdly deflated. 

But when I told Laila that we’d found him, she reminded me why this was such a significant moment.

Laila: I think that, regardless of whether he’ll answer questions or not, the fact that we know who he is, we know where he lives, we know what he looks like – and I think it’s a big deal for victims. I don’t speak for them, but I’ve spoken to so many of them. Just to finally know who is this man, call him out of the shadows – this is all part of accountability. This is all part of justice. And we can’t have justice for victims if we don’t know who the perpetrators are. So this is, I think, a monumental step. I think this is huge. This is groundbreaking.

So we’d traced Bergmair to his doorstep. But in a similar way, and despite what Laila said, I felt like we’d only got to the doorstep of the MindGeek story itself – without actually going inside. 

Because we still had a lot of questions – and the man behind Pornhub hadn’t answered any of them. We’d tried sending him a letter by registered post and numerous emails, but he’s refused to engage or even acknowledge us. If you’d given me the choice between confronting Bergmair outside his house, or sitting down from an agreed interview, I’d have chosen the interview every time.

Yes, it would have been less dramatic – but I really want to hear what this guy has to say. 

Serena: My videos were uploaded over and over and over again, they’d always tell themselves that they couldn’t do anything unless they were reported, but even when they were reported, they still lagged on doing anything to fix the problem. They’re really selfish, they need to really look at themselves in the mirror, because they are prioritising money and content over actual human beings’ lives. 

But even if Bergmair wouldn’t answer questions, the walls might still be about to close in.

Alexi: If you had to summarise what you were accusing MindGeek of in a sentence, how would you put it?

Mike: It would probably be something like MindGeek is a criminal enterprise that profits by monetising videos of child and adult rape and human trafficking.

Alexi: Wow. I mean, you can’t really get more serious allegations.

Mike: I mean, you see evil, this is evil. You have to call it what it is. It’s evil.

That’s Mike Bowe again. When I call him, Mike is sitting in his office in New York’s Times Square preparing to file a huge lawsuit against MindGeek. He’s representing 40-50 women, and he tells me about the case. How he’s going to use racketeering laws to go after MindGeek – the same laws used to crack down on the mafia. How he’s going to go after the owners, the investors behind MindGeek. 

And how he’s going to name Bernd Bergmair as a defendant. 

Mike: The ultimate responsibility here is with the owners. If I own a business and I appoint a manager, and I can fire the manager, I can tell the manager how to do things. And if I become aware and it becomes public that the manager is running the company in a way that is illegal or improper, and I do nothing – that’s my responsibility. 

But Mike struggles to believe that Bernd is the true owner of MindGeek. Yes Bergmair is wealthy, but is he that wealthy to own such a large stake? Did he get other rich people to invest in this company?

Mike: There is this whole other world where you can do finance, I call it the Epstein world. It’s like the uber rich, or the uber rich and uber powerful, and they don’t even need Goldman Sachs. And there’s a whole market available to them that isn’t really available to the Goldman Sachs of the world and, and hedge funds and everything because it’s, it’s too off the grid… It’s a whole different capital market. 

Alexi: Do you feel able to say anything about the people who you suspect might be a part of that investment group? 

Mike: No, because I don’t think that’s fair. I think we investigate stuff so that when we speak we’re not just making stuff up. We will find out.

So now it’s time to be honest. 

We’ve answered some questions about MindGeek in this investigation. But there are significant gaps in our knowledge. Some strands that we have to keep on going with. 

I still don’t understand MindGeek’s business model. What it does with that huge trove of personal data it collects on its visitors. I don’t know who financed the company through Colbeck Capital, that small New York hedge fund that lent it so much money. And I haven’t got to the bottom of the shadowy world of off-grid capital that Mike mentioned – the secret investments made by the uber wealthy. 

It seems to me that Bernd Bergmair represents something that’s dangerous in today’s internet economy. He represents the ability of a company to prioritise clicks over safety, profit over transparency. 

Finding Bergmair feels like the beginning of accountability for MindGeek and for the other massive porn companies who are – to be honest – just as secretive. But like one of those Russian dolls, uncovering him leads only to more questions.

For now though – the victims of Pornhub have someone to hold to account. 

Patricia: If you saw him, what would you want to say to him?

Kelly: Oh, man.

I want… just, sorry, because I really, if I were able to say something to him, I think it would… maybe if I brought up myself and what he has done to me personally. How you are ruining girls’ lives and their identity and their love for themselves and who they are for your own disgusting pleasure of money. You know, I wish I was more eloquent with my words. The fact that you look at girls as objects to make money off of when I know that you broke a huge part of me.

This story was reported by me, Alexi Mostrous, Xavier Greenwood and Patricia Clarke, with additional reporting by Kim Darrah and Dossier – Nikolai Atefie and Georg Eckelsberger. It was produced by Katie Gunning, with sound design by Karla Patella. The editor was Basia Cummings.


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Next in this file

The porn headmaster

The porn headmaster

In the internet age, anyone with a camera can make and sell porn. But what happens when a shoot goes wrong? In the second episode in our #PornPlanet series investigating online pornography, we look into the world of porn production

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