'MindGeek Has a Responsibility to Lead by Example': An Interview With Solomon Friedman, Partner at New Owner ECP

'MindGeek Has a Responsibility to Lead by Example': An Interview With Solomon Friedman, Partner at New Owner ECP

MONTREAL — Solomon Friedman, partner and VP at Ethical Capital Partners (ECP), the Canadian private equity firm whose purchase of MindGeek was made public yesterday, gave an exclusive interview to XBIZ today.

Friedman's background is as a trial and appellate lawyer, legal author and adjunct law professor. According to his official ECP bio, he has represented and advised individuals and organizations on complex legal and regulatory challenges before all levels of court in Canada.

The new VP for compliance at ECP clerked for a Canadian Supreme Court justice, is certified as a specialist in criminal law by the Law Society of Ontario and has appeared before standing committees of both the House of Commons and Senate in Canada, offering testimony about criminal, regulatory and constitutional law matters. He is also an ordained rabbi.

Answering XBIZ’s queries, Friedman expanded on some of the statements made through the “road map” document ECP released yesterday alongside news of the purchase.

The new MindGeek owners, according to Friedman, will focus on increasing transparency and foregrounding content creators, including them in meaningful consultations concerning policies and practices.

XBIZ: What made you and your partners decide to put the ECP team together and purchase MindGeek?

Solomon Friedman: The story of that decision really starts with the team and who we are, and how we got to know each other and work with one another. We have backgrounds which in some respects are different from traditional private equity. We are senior lawyers, we are senior law enforcement, senior public engagement specialists, along with investing and finance experience. And all of us in various routes and different industries have expertise in either doing legal and regulatory diligence, or dealing with highly-regulated industries, industries that have their own social or communications challenges. We all got to know each other in that sphere.

When we got the opportunity to look at MindGeek, and to start performing real reviews, what we saw, particularly the huge disparity between the public narrative in some circles and the reality, was astonishing.

And in that disparity, we recognized a few things: No. 1, enormous untapped value. That is, if these realities can be communicated publicly and transparently, which of course, in many ways has been missing in the past, we saw an opportunity to take what MindGeek has built and to really take it to the next level.

But we also saw a real opportunity to center voices and stakeholders in these discussions, which in the past have not been centered, because right now there are important decisions being made about regulation, about moderation, about payment processing, technological and social discussions.

Our group realized early on that there are voices that have been marginalized from this discussion that need to be centered. Primarily, the voices of content creators — that is, those individuals who make a free, informed and voluntary decision to share their own intimate sexual expression with others, who are entitled to full dignity, respect and protection. But more than that, to be centered in the discussions about an industry that affects them most of all.

In our view, there is no conflict between sex-positive, free expression by adults online, and trust and safety. There needs to be collaboration, there needs to be a free exchange of views. It cannot be a one-sided discussion.

Our view was that MindGeek has a responsibility to lead by example, in that regard. We saw many positive steps in that direction. What we are looking forward to, is to take that to the next level.

XBIZ: You agreed to give an interview to the adult industry trade publication less than 24 hours after the purchase was announced to the public. This, to put it mildly, is already a complete change in strategy from that of the previous owners.

Friedman: There's a reason the new ownership team is publicly identified and eager to engage transparently. By the way, there is no clear demarcation between the problems that face the internet as a whole and the problems that face the adult industry. Those problems come in different flavors, but they are the same problem. It cannot happen behind closed doors. It needs public engagement.

It was a real priority to speak to XBIZ today. We got a request from the leading industry publication and we are making this a priority. I’ve been talking to Reuters, I've been talking to [mainstream outlets] all day today, but it's essential that we communicate this to an outlet that has the ear of the community that matters most.

XBIZ: What's the experience of the people on the ownership team with the adult sector in particular?

Friedman: Our experience comes from legal, regulatory land, as well as law enforcement, and public engagement, stakeholder engagement. We've done work on the legal challenges faced both by sex workers and victims of exploitation. We have seen the challenges, both from a legal perspective and also from a law enforcement perspective, that the system faces in balancing those issues.

What is most important about ECP is that we are also candid about where we need expertise and advice, which is why our existence and this transaction would not be possible without our independent advisory board.

And what we have done in assembling that board is look for independent advisors. I use those words because they're important: independent, and that they are not employees or shareholders of Ethical Capital Partners; and advisors, because their mandate is, in their areas of expertise, to provide independent advice to bring together their networks in order to inform the critical discussions that we're having to bring those voices to the table.

I'm so proud of this team. We put at the forefront of what we do content creator health and safety, and content creator relations. That is No. 1. So we went looking for the two leading academics in those spaces, and we are so delighted that they are optimistic about our message and about the vision that we had.

Dr. Val Webber is a leading academic in the space of performer health and safety. Their involvement with PASS is well known. They are an advocate for the rights of sex workers, for putting their interests paramount in the discussion about adult platforms. We are delighted to have the benefit of their advice and we look forward to collaborating with Val, an extraordinary academic and researcher whose work is literally, day by day, protecting the health and safety of sex workers and ensuring that whether it's regulation, financial regulation, content regulation, it's not crafted on a one-sided basis, that this is not a megaphone blaring regulation and dictates.

We also have Maggie MacDonald, an extraordinary academic at the University of Toronto. When I went to perform my review and diligence on this platform — I'm a lawyer, research is at the heart of what I do — I went looking for the academic journals and the academic literature on adult platforms, and I found a master's thesis written by a scholar named Maggie MacDonald, federally funded research on a platform that you might have heard of before called Pornhub.

Maggie McDonald wrote her master's thesis on Pornhub and she engages with it openly. She has critiques, she centers it in terms of the evolving ecosystem of online platforms, and she is presently completing her Ph.D. thesis on the very same platform.

And I thought to myself, “Who could possibly be better to inform and advise us, to give us independent advice, to make us aware of challenges that we simply do not know about because our life experience, our research, is very different?” These voices need to be centered.

XBIZ: Do any of the ECP partners come from the adult business world?

Friedman: What I'd say is that our experience intersects with the sector. As a lawyer, I have been involved in cases involving CSAM, nonconsensual imagery and defending sex workers — I have been on the legal side at the center of those issues and I'm well aware of the challenges and the tensions in that sphere. There’s Derek Ogden, who was the former chief superintendent of the RCMP, responsible for national policing. He brings a career of experience from his lens.

But we recognize two things: No. 1, we recognize that MindGeek is a leader that has expertise in this area. This is a space that they know, in many ways, from their perspective, of course, better than anyone. What we realized was that new voices have to be centered in this. And it's not for us to dictate — whether it's regulation, whether it's content policy — without centering the voices of our content creators and other stakeholders.

To me, the real value that we bring is that we come at this with a lifetime of collaboration, not just in our own fields, but also in diverse fields. The reaction that we've received is that this is refreshing. This is not dictates that come from on high, this is an approach that really centers having these discussions. Now, you can't have these discussions unless you're willing to have them openly and transparently.

This has been an enormous challenge in this space in the past, whether it's because of shame or stigma. We are of the view that that is not good enough. We need to do better; the internet deserves better.

XBIZ: What would you want to say to creators directly? As soon as the news of the purchase went public, everyone messaged to ask, ‘What does this mean for us? Is this good or bad?’ What's your answer to them?

Friedman: No.1, we affirm our commitment that content creators are at the center of what we do. Our platforms would not and could not exist without content creators freely and voluntarily expressing themselves. We recognize that and will always recognize that.

No. 2, we are committed to consulting meaningfully with content creators, to hearing diverse views and opinions. And the thing about consultation is it doesn't mean everybody has to agree. What it means is that we understand where one another is coming from, that we take that into account as we have these discussions and learn from one another.

We are of the view that it is unacceptable to not have content creators centered in the most important policy discussions. And one of the things that Ethical Capital Partners will do is to not only have discussions, and real consultations and continue to build relationships between MindGeek and content creators, but give content creators the voice and the platform to engage with regulators, legislators, law enforcement and other internet industries as a whole.

We will do everything we can to facilitate that access, through our own efforts but also through our advisory board. We are looking forward to announcing, in the coming months, conferences and symposia that bring together an intersectional array of content creators, academics, other stakeholders. We want to be the place where these discussions are happening. And it can only happen if you do it out loud. If you do it proudly. And you do it transparently. That's something that will be a change in some quarters. But in our view, it's a change that is sorely needed.

XBIZ: What key things will likely remain the same for Pornhub, the other sites and the MindGeek content production companies, and what might be changing?

Friedman: Ethical Capital Partners, to be fully clear and transparent, has bought 100% of the shares of MindGeek. It is a complete acquisition and a complete change of ownership, which means that there will be a change of ownership philosophy that will affect, in a very positive way, all aspects of this business.

On the content platforms side, we will continue to build those relationships and put content creators first — their safety, their privacy, their ability to benefit freely from the content that they create. And that means listening. It means learning. It means understanding where there is room for improvement, and understanding where we need to significantly take into account what we're being told. But that can't happen without a dialogue.

The same thing is true on the content creation side. The content creation side also needs to center performer health and safety, and performer trust. When we did a review, we were impressed by the steps that MindGeek has taken. But the challenges continue to grow and the responses have to evolve. But they cannot evolve unless content creators are part of that discussion, and central to that discussion.

We are also committed by being publicly identified, by being proud of this acquisition, to dispel some of the myths, some of the ignorance and some of the downright misinformation about this industry. And we know that we're not the first to do that. We know that content creators, in many ways, have been shouting this from the rooftops, have been telling the truth. We want to amplify those voices. We're going to do it to the public. We're going to do it to the media. We're going to do it in front of regulators, legislators and law enforcement.

We want to be a platform, an advocate for those creators who in many ways have not been heard until now. We want them to go from being the object of stories to being the subject of stories — to be the voice of themselves. And we have the reach to do that in the MindGeek holdings. And it's something we're very excited to do.

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