Massive Civil Lawsuit Filed Against MindGeek, Others Over 3rd-Party Content

Massive Civil Lawsuit Filed Against MindGeek, Others Over 3rd-Party Content

IRVINE, Calif. — A legal team headed by Michael J. Bowe, the former lawyer for Donald Trump and Jerry Falwell Jr., filed a massive civil lawsuit in California today against Pornhub parent company MindGeek, its officials and investors, on behalf of 34 women who allege they were “human trafficked” by the company in relation to allegedly illegal videos uploaded by third parties onto its flagship tube site.

The text of the lawsuit was shared via Twitter from a private Google Drive by New York Times editorialist/journalist Nicholas Kristof, who also authored the December 4, 2020 article that platformed the War on Porn positions of religious anti-porn activist groups Exodus Cry and NCOSE (formerly Morality in Media). Both groups have taken credit for originating Kristof’s reporting and slant.

Immediately after Kristof announced the existence of the lawsuit this morning, the NCOSE Twitter account praised the journalist as an ally.

The lawyers suing MindGeek are Bowe, Lauren Tabaksblat and Danielle A. D’Aquila, from the Orange County office of law firm Brown Rudnick.

The plaintiffs are identified as Serena Fleites, whose story was foregrounded by Kristof in his New York Times article, and 33 anonymous women only identified as “Jane Does 1-33.”

The complaint identifies the defendants as MindGeek, several subsidiaries, CEO Feras Antoon, company officer David Tassillo, VP Corey Price, several investors and credit card company Visa.

A Civil Case With Criminal Language

Although this is a civil case, many of the complaints drafted by Bowe and the others are worded as criminal charges: violation of federal sex trafficking laws; receipt, transport and distribution of child pornography; racketeering; public disclosure of private facts; placing plaintiffs in “false light”; common law misappropriation of likeness; statutory misappropriation of likeness; distribution of private sexually explicit materials; negligence; unjust enrichment; unfair competition; and civil conspiracy.

One key point that is buried in the reams of general allegations is that Bowe and the other lawyers for the 34 alleged victims claim that “in the rare instance where the defendants were forced to remove content from their platform, whistleblowers have confirmed that they subsequently would re-upload the content to their platform.” This is mentioned in passing, and it is the first allegation that the lawyers will introduced yet-unnamed “whistleblowers” who apparently will claim that MindGeek personnel “re-uploaded” content known to be illegal. This is perhaps the biggest news of the lawsuit, which otherwise rehashes the NCOSE/Exodus Cry/Kristof claims of why Section 230 protections should not apply to MindGeek because of the FOSTA/SESTA exception.

The lawsuit alleges that “a central element of the business plan that MindGeek used to become the dominant online pornography company in the world was the maximum use of non-consensual content.” This claim of the “centrality to the business model” is an exact replication of the strategy used by the Federal government to dismantle Backpage.com in the months leading up to the passage of FOSTA/SESTA.

The lawsuit also serves as a warning to mainstream payment companies to stop doing business with adult content companies, claiming that the “American credit companies and banks, including in particular here, defendant Visa,” were “also knowingly profiting along with” MindGeek and since they were “uniquely suited to stop this exploitation but chose instead to participate in the profiteering,” they are also liable to potential “lawfare” lawsuits from firms like Bowe’s.

Over 120+ Pages of Sensational 'Background'

The 179-page text of the lawsuit is mostly taken up with general allegations and assertions against MindGeek — sensationally and explicitly comparing them to pop culture mafiosi — that do not directly address the supposed “human trafficking” of the 34 women.

Pages six and seven contain a list of the plaintiffs, declaring each of them “a victim of child sex trafficking” and “a victim of sex trafficking” and discloses their state or country of residence at the time of production of the allegedly illegal videos.

The alleged “child sex trafficking” victims were located in California (2), Colorado, Rhode Island, Missouri, the U.K. (2), Colombia (2) and Thailand (4) and one in five states: California, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Florida and New York.

The alleged “sex trafficking” victims were located in California (2), Canada, Ohio, Arizona, Nevada (3), Utah, Illinois, North Carolina, Texas, Oklahoma (3), the U.K. (2) and Thailand (3).

Pages 78-110 are the actual descriptions of the allegations made by the plaintiffs about the supposed criminal activities against them. Pages 160-161 contain a table describing the alleged victims’ interactions with Pornhub customer service. Pages 160-179 apply the general assertions made through the bulk of the lawsuit to the plaintiffs.

The remaining 120-plus pages skip through a staggering number of assertions about MindGeek, its employees, its investors, a lengthy quote from Kristof’s article and an impassioned defense of anti-porn activist and Exodus Cry ministry spokesperson Laila Mickelwait.

None of these are footnoted for reference.

Sweeping Allegations

Among the statements and allegations made by the Bowe-led lawsuit are:

  • “MindGeek is the most dominant online pornography company in the world. It is also one of the largest human trafficking ventures in the world.”
  • MindGeek “is likely the largest non-regulatory repository of child pornography in North America and well beyond.”
  • Bowe and the others insist that “this is a case about rape, not pornography. It is a case about the rape and sexual exploitation of children. It is a case about the rape and sexual exploitation of men and women. And it is a case about each of these defendants knowingly and intentionally electing to capitalize and profit from the horrendous exploitation and abuse of tens of thousands of other human beings so they could make more than the enormous sums of money they would have otherwise made anyway.”
  • Bowe and the others quote an unnamed person among “those who know it best," claiming that MindGeek is “just like the Sopranos” and “a classic criminal enterprise.”
  • The lawsuit, headed by the lawyer who recently represented Donald J. Trump, refers to the corporate structure of MindGeek as “the ‘bosses’ at the head of this criminal enterprise.”
  • The lawsuit ominously claims that Mindgeek CEO Feras Antoon and financier Berg Bergmair — who was recently the subject of a self-described human “hunt” by U.K. journalist Alexi Mostrous, where members of his family were followed and confronted — represent “a group of uber-wealthy owners of the company.” The lawsuit calls these investors “'the over-bosses' of the enterprise [who] are unknown to the public and even to Antoon because they do not want to be publicly associated, or even risk being publicly associated,” with their adult investments. The lawsuit, in circular logic, claims that their discretion might have something to do “with the criminal enterprise they fund and from which they profit,” and not with the public shaming actions of anti-porn groups like NCOSE and “manhunting” activist-journalists like Alexi Mostrous and his team.
  • The lawsuit paints Bergmair’s discretion about adult-sector investments — not atypical for investors in any stigmatized industry, or even general investing— in seriously ominous terms. According to Bowe and his colleagues, he “literally secreted himself from the world, hiding behind a false professional identity, an extensively scrubbed internet fingerprint and extreme rules of secrecy.”
  • The lawsuit repeatedly refers to MindGeek’s corporate leadership by the bizarre term “the ‘Bro-Club,’” which may have originated in internal office culture.
  • The lawsuit claims that the only possible reason for discretion is “an extreme aversion to visibility and scrutiny” because “the most powerful online pornography company in the world was built and sustained in material parts on child pornography, rape and human trafficking.”
  • The lawsuit then describes in nefarious terms the basic business model of third-party-generated content platforms (the exact same model used by YouTube, and generally the underpinning of Facebook and Google): “The defendants embraced a business model in which they not only allowed users to populate their platform with virtually any type of pornographic content, they would carefully analyze those users and others who were drawn to such content to induce them to load more, watch more, live more on the MindGeek platform.”
  • The lawsuit claims MindGeek “intentionally elected to not employ any effective monitoring of what was being uploaded, or process for removing content that was exploitive and illegal."
  • The lawsuit alleges that MindGeek “frequently purchased in bulk trafficked content from known trafficking areas such as Eastern Europe, Asia and South America. In doing so, they used third-parties to upload that content in a way that made it look like user-uploaded content. In executing this scheme, MindGeek used its byzantine international corporate structure of hundreds of sham shell corporations to mask the process and launder the payments.”
  • The lawsuit also claims MindGeek is “appropriately dubbed, 'The Monsanto of Porn.'"
  • The lawsuit then tries to fit MindGeek under a “racketeering” model: “MindGeek is a classic criminal enterprise carried out through wide-ranging criminal activities, including, but not limited to, human trafficking; child pornography; criminal copyright piracy; internet hacking, stalking and doxing; blackmail and extortion; mail and wire fraud; embezzlement, bank and creditor fraud; tax evasion; and money laundering. The company’s top management and shadowy international financiers and their investors are the ‘bosses’ of this enterprise and, together with their ‘capos,’ run its rackets and schemes.”
  • Borrowing imagery from pop culture representations of the mafia, Bowe and the others claim that MindGeek “viciously defends its concealed criminal activities from exposure. When it senses a threat of exposure, the Enterprise responds like any lawless, rouge [sic] actor: it lies, attacks, smears, bribes, blackmails, extorts and otherwise intimidates any perceived threat by any means necessary.”
  • The lawsuit claims that MindGeek “targeted longtime porn industry journalist Mike South because of revealing exposés he was publishing. Initially, MindGeek used promised advertising revenue and lucrative partnership opportunities to bribe South. When South rebuffed those offers, he began receiving threats. Ultimately, he found a box outside his front door containing matches, a fire truck, and fire extinguisher, and the blunt message, ‘I’m sorry your house burnt down.’ He has since carried a gun at all times.” (Mike South, a former performer and blogger, is reportedly not currently affiliated with the website MikeSouth.com.)
  • The lawsuit claims “an anti-trafficking activist investigating MindGeek” was subjected to “serious threats.” “Those activists, and their extended families, were also targeted with threats of physical violence and death, vandalism, public smears, invasions of privacy, doxing, hacking, and other illegal and extortive behaviors designed to discredit, intimidate and silence.”
  • The lawsuit uses as supporting evidence “the December 4, 2020 bombshell New York Times report entitled, ‘The Children of Pornhub,’ the Dr. Oz segment on January 27, 2021 referred to as ‘The Victims of Pornhub,’ and the December 9, 2020 New York Times follow-up article ‘An Uplifting Update, on the Terrible World of Pornhub.’”
  • The lawsuit refers to the current inquiry at the Canadian House of Commons regarding MindGeek — which prominently featured both Michael J. Bowe and Exodus Cry’s Laila Mickelwait — and claims it “is reportedly considering perjury charges for false testimony” by the MindGeek execs.

As for the actual charges, the lawsuit reiterates the contention made by Kristof’s article, based on the campaign by Exodus Cry’s Mickelwait and NCOSE, that MindGeek should be held liable for content uploaded by third-party uploaders, as an exception to current Section 230 protections.

As digital rights and free speech group Electronic Frontier Foundation explains, Section 230 “says that ‘No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider’ (47 U.S.C. § 230). In other words, online intermediaries that host or republish speech are protected against a range of laws that might otherwise be used to hold them legally responsible for what others say and do. The protected intermediaries include not only regular Internet Service Providers (ISPs), but also a range of ‘interactive computer service providers,’ including basically any online service that publishes third-party content."

Complete text of the lawsuit against MindGeek, others

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