The (almost) invisible men and women behind the world’s largest porn sites

The (almost) invisible men and women behind the world’s largest porn sites
Credit: TNW Creative

It’s no surprise to anyone to hear that there is a lot of porn on the Web. OK, perhaps not as much as some studies make out, but there’s still plenty of naked bodies out there if you want to find them.

By some estimates, this time last year around 4.5 percent of global Web traffic from desktops was to porn sites. That might not sound like a whole lot but if you dive into the figures of some of the most popular and highest trafficked adult sites, you start to see that it really is.

Behind those most popular sites are tough to track corporations – and behind most of them is just one.

Here are the companies and people behind some of the most biggest porn sites in the world.

How big is big?

Saying porn is big business is a truism that’s oft repeated and rarely clarified.

To go by SimilarWeb’s figures, the top 10 most popular sites are owned by just five companies – and several in the top 50 are owned by a company now called MindGeek.

At the top of the heap are XVideos, PornHub and xHamster.

similarwebstats

XVideos alone had more than 580 million visits in December, 2015. On average a visitor stayed for just under 12 minutes and looked at an average of 12.5 pages.

Add in the totals from the other two sites in the top three and that’s over one billion visits per month just across the top three – and this is the kicker – on desktop only.

Add in mobile and it multiplies again – some of the most popular sites get as many as 100 million visits per day.

Online porn is big business, without a doubt.

Like many other online enterprises, it’s primarily funded by advertising but the monopolistic nature of the top 10 is harming the wider industry while boosting MindGeek’s dominance.

Untoppable, untraceable

MindGeek might own some of the top 10 (by traffic) porn ‘tube’ sites on the Web, but it doesn’t own XVideos, which sits in the number one spot.

Instead, XVideos is registered to WGCZ Holding, a Polish company that you’ll only really find out if you trawl through the many legal cases the company is involved in, including against MindGeek.

WGCZ is also listed as the registrant of WebGroup-Limited.com, but there’s no website there or at WGCZ-sro.com.

OK then, dead ends.

xvideos

XVideos isn’t the only top ranking adult site that this company seems to own though.

Court filings also indicate that the individuals behind WGCZ Holding, Stephane Michael Pacaud and Deborah Malorie Pacaud, are also responsible for XNXX – the number four spot, so it’s safe to say it’s no one-hit wonder, so to speak.

XNXX’s listed registrar is VLab Ltd, a company based in Hong Kong, which is also the listed registrar of some other businesses connected to the Pacauds.

To add to an already (likely deliberately) confusing picture, XNXX itself is listed as owned by NKL Associates, which is another of the companies cited in court filings.

There’s also no website at NKLAssociates.com. Shocker.

However, in a case brought by XNXX, WGCZ revealed itself as the owner of the site. It lost the case.

What the hell is the point of all this?

To illustrate just how tough it is to track down the owners of some of the world’s most popular websites.

In an article from last year, The Economist – citing an undisclosed source – said that:

“The French owner of XVideos is said to have turned down an offer of more than $120m with a scornful ‘Sorry, I have to go and play Diablo II.’

With the listed addresses of Stephane and Deborah both within France, it seems likely this would be the same French owner(s) cited.

My own attempts to contact either party haven’t yet been successful, and WGCZ has no public financial records available, so there’s no indication of exactly how much money either the subsidiary or parent companies are making.

Other people, who would rather remain anonymous, confirmed that the owner is indeed an incredibly private person, but assured me that my contact details have been passed along, should he/they wish to get in touch.

Whether you view it as impressive or disturbing – being the owner of the world’s highest traffic porn site and remaining all but invisible is no mean feat.

No doubt having millions of dollars helps in that regard though.

The ‘smaller’ most-popular porn sites in the world

In the top 10 there are five companies. WGCZ, Multi Media LLC, IG Media, Hammy Media and MindGeek – again, that varies depending on the figures you look at, but there’s some consensus that these companies own some of the highest traffic sites in the world, in some cases, not just measured against porn sites.

With MindGeek-owned PornHub in second spot, that leaves the number three position to xHamster, which is owned by Hammy Media, a company registered in Limassol, Cyprus – a country known to have low tax rates – and has another office in Barcelona, Spain.

xhamster

What it isn’t, however, is invisible.

A spokesperson for the company was more than happy to get back to (some of) my queries about how the site started and who was behind it:

“In the early months of 2007, a small group of friends gathered to create a better way for fans of adult entertainment to enjoy video content online.

Initially xHamster was intended to have a design similar to what has become common among social network platforms. At the time sites like Facebook and MySpace were becoming wildly popular, so a similar community online for porn seemed to make sense.

The original goal was to enable people who wanted to chat, exchange erotic pics and share amateur videos to search by interest so that they could each vote for more content from the most popular sources. That approach lead people to find mutual friends online and maybe discover partners interested in intimate relationships.”

Indeed, citing the company’s unnamed founder, a spokesperson said:

“One of things I am proudest about, during all my time with xHamster, are the number of people who have met each other, gotten married and become life partners after meeting each other originally via our website.

The fact that xHamster was created organically by the users themselves to fit their own desires, rather than artificially through some kind of top-down commercial structure is one of the key reasons that the site became so popular originally and remains so popular today.”

I’ll be honest, it wouldn’t have even occurred to me that people that visit xHamster are going there with the intent of meeting someone or finding a partner to marry.

Hammy Media says that the site gets between 23 and 25 million unique users each day, with Mondays being the highest for traffic.

The unnamed founders didn’t feel like going on the record with their identities though, instead being described as “modest guys who like to stay behind the scenes.”

Again, that’s understandable – there are a whole lot of reasons you might run a porn site and not want people to know about it. Again though, as with XVideos, it’s not really very comforting to know that huge industry players are essentially invisible.

Porn1
Credit: TNW Creative

Moving down the top 10 you have Multi Media LLC, registered owner of the adult webcam website Chaturbate, which sits in seventh place and gets around 117 million visits each month, according to SimilarWeb.

An earlier owner of the Chaturbate trademark is listed as owned by ZMEDIANOW, LLC. When the logo updated last year, however, the registrant name listed was Multi Media LLC.

Chaturbate is based in Orange County, California, and while the company was happy to chat with me, I was informed that the founders do not participate in interviews.

Another holding company for a number of ‘top 50’ (rather than top 10) adult sites – like YouJizz – is IG Media.

In a now familiar fashion, IG Media is a ghost of a company but in some ways it’s even more tantalizing than some others on this list.

There are scant traces on the Web, but following a few threads lead to an ‘internet reputation specialist’ called Secret OPS.

Plaything of 'Igor Gens' or a bunch of stock images? Who knows for sure.
Credit: Igor-Gens.blogspot.com
Plaything of ‘Igor Gens’ or a bunch of stock images? Who knows for sure.

Digging around the two companies reveals a whole load of pictures of a ridiculously lavish lifestyle.

Needless to say, all attempts to contact IG Media have been unsuccessful to date.

This appears to be the ‘corporate’ website of one of the most trafficked porn sites on the Web.

IGORGENS

It’s also likely that IG Media owns the ninth most popular spot in this list – Beeg – as they share an administrator, but I couldn’t find definitive proof.

Back in 2011, LiveJasmin (owned by Docler Holding, owned by Hungarian György GattyĂĄn) was the most popular cam – and porn – site in the world with a little over 31 million monthly visits.

It now gets around 140 million each month and sits in tenth place – SimilarWeb’s rankings look at more than just traffic to arrive at an overall position, hence the discrepancy in figures.

Gattyán is a less enigmatic porn site owner – his past and current businesses are well-documented, and in addition to owning LiveJasmin, his companies include Oranum.com, a fortune-telling site and in total once employed more than 1,000 employees.

In 2013, he built and opened a high-end fashion store called Il Bacio di Stile in Budapest, capital city of Hungary. In 2014, Gattyán’s estimated wealth in Forbes’ first Hungarian rich list put him right at the top for the country, with a net worth equivalent to around $635 million.

However, in 2015, Il Bacio di Stile was permanently closed with “billionaire” Gattyán reportedly having sunk just over $65 million into the project.

Unstoppable

While MindGeek is the owner of a huge slice of the adult market online, you wouldn’t guess it from looking at the company’s corporate site.

MindGeek

MindGeek refused to provide comment or answers to my questions for this article.

Before becoming MindGeek, the company started life as Mansef – an amalgamation of its Canadian founders names Ouissam Youssef and Stephane Manos ,as well as Youssef’s brother, Matt Keezer and another unnamed friend. According to NY Mag it was a love of Foosball that brought the group together initially.

Mansef started in 2003 as the holding company for various TGP websites and an affiliate network. It quickly grew to launch the Brazzers site, and later a porn production company and various other pay sites.

In 2007, Keezer started PornHub under the auspices of another company called Interhub, which Mansef was also a partner in.

While this had been going on Fabian Thylmann, a German entrepreneur described by Spiegel Online as” a computer geek who knew his way around numbers and data”, had been building software for marketing porn ads. It wasn’t sexy in any sense, but it was incredibly successful.

After selling that business he bought the Privat Amateure website in 2006, and three more between 2007 and 2010.

In 2010, Thylmann bought Mansef and Interhub for an undisclosed amount in a deal that was incredibly unfavorable to the entrepreneur.

PornHub

After failing to secure a loan for the full amount of the purchase, terms were agreed that included 16 monthly payments – if one of which was missed, the company immediately reverted back to its previous ownership.

Clearly not wanting to waste any time, Manwin went on a purchasing spree, securing deals to acquire or distribute some of the biggest brands in porn – both in terms of free and pay sites, and production companies.

As a result, it’s easily the largest porn company on the planet and has a grip on the industry that some – including performers – find detrimental.

After growing a porn empire, Thylmann sold his stake in the company to senior management – Feras Antoon and David Tassillo – in 2013 seeking ventures new. He’s now an investor in very early stage startups struggling against his past, he explained:

“For me, [there were] too many closed doors coming from that industry; still today I am faced with issues doing business now and then just because of the industry I was in a few years ago. Less and less though, so that’s good.

[There’s] also virtually no exit capabilities in the space, especially at the size of Manwin when I sold it. So when you are presented with a good option, take it.”

Although now an investor in companies like Frontback and Giant Swarm and getting less pressure about his past in his work life, there is still a shadow hanging over him.

“The tax investigation from Germany is still ongoing, so I can not comment on it.”

The case he’s referring to is a long-running affair dating back to 2012, in which he reportedly paid €10 million “deposit” to be released from pre-trial detention – despite this, he apparently runs the risk of a mandatory one-year sentence if found guilty of tax evasion during his time at Manwin.

According to Die Welt, when Thylmann exited the company’s revenue was around $500 million per year and it had around 450 million visitors each month across its sites.

He was formally indicted last year, following more than three years of checks on the network of more than 35 business Manwin owned under his reign.

After selling his share of the company, it was renamed MindGeek and continued on its purchasing spree to where it is today.

It still doesn’t have XVideos and xHamster though.

porngiffixed
Credit: TNW Creative

A porn industry death spiral?

With so much of the adult entertainment industry now owned by MindGeek – and really only a few other companies owning the largest porn properties on the Web, what has historically taken place is a game of cat-and-mouse.

Copyrighted material found its way onto tube sites, takedown notices are issued, the content comes down. The same content finds its way back onto the sites – and repeat.

It’s certainly not a situation unique to MindGeek sites either – I think if you were to open almost any porn tube site right now, you’d find pirated material.

The knock-on effect on the industry as a whole has been to drive down rates. Why bother spending all that money making a porn movie if it’s instantly going to be pirated and on the tube sites?

According to a 2014 Quora post from adult film star Siri:

“There is no such thing as a ‘mom and pop’ free porn site, I’m sorry. The largest, most popular tube sites are owned by large corporations (or simply extremely wealthy individuals) seeking to profit by stealing other people’s copyrighted material, and organizations that promote piracy of all online media.

So just know that every time you log on to a tube site, you’re definitely hurting performers like me, who work hard and pay out of my own pocket to produce original content for my own website.”

Hammy Media, for its part as one of the key players in this, says the situation is improving – that less pirated material is making its way onto its sites.

It’s of no doubt that we address this issue very seriously and it should be noted that nowadays we’ve remarkably succeeded in its solution.

One of the most efficient options for us is the software which creates a fingerprint of each video and compares them afterwards. This solution helps us compile the blacklist of videos which are banned from being published on our website.

Thus, we’ve observed a significant decrease in the number of DMCA forms filled in at our website and this tendency prevails.

In reality, what that means is that videos that have already been reported via a DMCA complaint can’t be re-uploaded, which does of course mean that they’ve been successfully uploaded once and then taken down. So not exactly ideal.

Perhaps more promisingly than that though, producers who upload short clips of their videos (making the full versions available at a price) protect any other uploads of that same movie, even a full length version by a different user.

Again, it’s a step, but it’s also another avenue of free and legal content for MindGeek’s sites, that also has the benefit of reducing the demand for DMCA takedowns.

It’s not necessarily steps that seem to see benefits trickling back down to performers or original content producers though. As a result, it’s likely that the potentially risky practice of porn stars becoming escorts will continue – or most will be forced out entirely.

It’s an industry that’s historically always been viewed as seedy and despite the obvious mainstream consumption of porn by hundreds of millions of people every day, it seems that the people at the helm and making most of the money still live in the shadows.

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