Business·Analysis

Delete history: Pornhub changed the world, but its empire faces a reckoning

Since Pornhub was founded by Montreal university students in 2007, it has completely transformed how people make and access porn online. Now, the landscape of the adult industry is changing again, and this time, Pornhub is the site facing pressure to adapt.

Montreal-founded site that transformed online porn is now attempting to adapt itself

A photo illustration shows repeated images of the pornhub landing page with the videos blurred.
Since Pornhub was founded by Montreal university students in 2007, it has completely transformed how people make and access porn online. Now, the landscape of the adult industry is changing again, and this time, Pornhub is the site facing pressure to adapt. (Allison Cake/CBC News)

Pornhub completely disrupted the adult entertainment industry, and its influence on culture and our collective experiences of sexual expression online is undeniable.

But Pornhub, which bills itself as the world's leading free porn site, is now attempting to adapt to the times itself. It's facing a changing landscape of how people make and consume adult content, a reputation marred by accusations of child sexual abuse and pressure to abide by potentially invasive age verification laws.  

Like many other tech companies, Pornhub was started by a handful of dudes with a dream of making tons of money — and they would do it by offering people what they wanted: free pornography.

The site was founded in 2007 by Concordia students Ouissam Youssef and Stephane Manos, and their competitive foosball buddy Matt Keezer. They spent the next several years treating it like the tech startup it was.

By the mid-2000s, Pornhub had become one of the most popular sites on the internet.

In an era of free everything online, Pornhub flourished by allowing anyone with an internet connection to upload pornographic videos to the site, regardless of whether they owned or appeared in them. In 2010, the site was purchased by a larger company that owned several other porn sites. It would eventually become known as MindGeek, based in Montreal.

Big-box porn in a mom-and-pop world

Pornhub's grip on the online porn industry was like a big-box corporation coming into a mom-and-pop town. Independent porn websites that relied on paying customers faced an industry-wide reckoning. 

Suddenly, their content could be stolen and reuploaded to a free "tube" site like Pornhub — tube being short for YouTube, which they were modelled after — and hundreds of thousands of people could watch it without ever having to pull out a credit card. 

An older man wearing a dark suit jacket and sweater with a grey beard poses with a young dark-haired woman wearing a long, silver dress.
Adult film director and producer Colin Rowntree, left, and adult film actor Madeline Blue attend the 2016 Adult Video News Awards at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

"That was the same year that you remember the mortgage crisis and the subprime crisis and the world economy is collapsing," said Colin Rowntree, an indie pornographer who was running his own online adult business at the time. 

"And right in the middle of that was the tubes giving away free stuff when, you know, Joe Blow had no money and his mortgage was due, but he still wanted to watch some porn. It was a perfect storm." 

Tube sites "literally decimated the adult industry," he said. 

Pornhub built its brand on a Wild West of free content, and in the process, trained people to never expect to pay for porn. Add to this the pervasive stigma against sex workers, and what resulted was a widespread entitlement to the labour of pornographers.

But access to free porn also expanded sexual horizons and brought pornography more into the mainstream. People no longer had to drive to a physical porn shop to rent a VHS tape. It was all online.

With free access to porn came more exposure to different gender expressions, body types and fetishes far beyond the pages of Playboy. In that sense, Pornhub and access to porn online in general played a role in broadening sexual horizons, and research backs up this phenomenon

Pornhub also became a place for performers to gain a wider audience and earn money through ad revenue. Uploading clips on Pornhub meant massive exposure and allowed them to develop fan bases that might follow them to paid sites or onward in their careers.

The changing economy of porn

In the last few years, the economy of porn has changed in radical ways. 

Working online as a content creator or influencer has become a viable job. The gig economy didn't just disrupt taxis and food delivery, it also changed nearly everything about the world of adult entertainment.

The rise of subscription platforms and cam sites, which allow performers and models to stream live from their own bedrooms, meant earning a living as a sex worker became possible for more people, including those who are disabled.

LISTEN | How OnlyFans taught me to embrace my disability: 
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For escorts, online sex work also offered safer work environments than street-based work. Performers were able to determine who they would shoot with and what hours, wages and terms of employment they'd accept. With the rise of live-streaming sites, the performers owned their own content.

Onlyfans is the most famous example of this shift to a new generation of porn creators and consumers, and it has quickly become one of Pornhub's biggest competitors. 

The subscription-based site, launched in 2016, lets people sign up to support content creators for a set price per month — usually around $10. There are "safe for work" creators on OnlyFans, but it's known for porn. 

Onlyfans exploded in popularity in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic. For all of the reasons the adult gig economy was starting to thrive online — flexible hours, decent pay, ownership of one's work and well-being — creators flocked to the site. 

Between March and April of 2020, Onlyfans saw a 200 per cent increase in new creator registrations. In 2022, it made $1.09 billion US in net revenue

People weren't just paying for porn again, they were paying in droves. 

A computer screen displays a story from the New York Times titled 'The Children of Pornhub' featuring a girl whose face is blurred.
The New York Times published a December 2020 article titled The Children of Pornhub in which columnist Nicholas Kristof spoke to victims of child sexual abuse about what happened when recordings of their abuse ended up on the site. (CBC)

Accusations of child sexual abuse

At the same time, Pornhub was going through a crisis. 

In December 2020, the New York Times published an opinion article by Nicholas Kristof, who spoke to victims of child sexual abuse about what happened when recordings of their abuse ended up on Pornhub. The accusations were startling and harrowing. 

Following the New York Times piece, Mastercard and Visa pulled their services from Pornhub entirely. Sex workers who relied on the site for their livelihoods were devastated. 

"I felt, especially during the COVID times, it was very scary — the thought of them not allowing us to make any money at all ever anymore," said Vanniall, a performer who uses Pornhub. 

"I really was thinking, 'Oh my God, is this actually going to be it? Is this going to be the last time I'm ever gonna get a Pornhub payout?' And that was horrifying."  

WATCH | Nicholas Kristof on the problem with Pornhub:

"I can't unsee images of kids being exploited," says New York Times columnist

3 years ago
Duration 5:22
In an exposé, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof says Pornhub, a subsidiary of Montreal-based company Mindgeek, features videos on its website depicting sexual exploitation of minors.

There were demands and petitions from anti-trafficking groups to have Pornhub shut down altogether. Conservative lobbyists in the U.S. especially held up Pornhub as an example of what they felt was wrong with the entire industry, and miscategorized all porn work as exploitation. 

Because of Pornhub's Montreal roots, Kristof's article called for action from Canadian officials. "So a question for Trudeau and all Canadians: Why does Canada host a company that inflicts rape videos on the world?" he wrote.

Many social media sites struggle to keep non-consensual sexual imagery and child sexual abuse material off their platforms. 

Facebook, Instagram and X, formerly known as Twitter — three of the biggest social media platforms in the world — all report massive amounts of child abuse imagery every year to oversight agencies like the U.S.-based National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. 

But Pornhub, which had built itself up as the household name for porn and has long been the target of conservative campaigns against porn, was poised for a particularly hard fall.

In response to Mastercard and Visa pulling out, Pornhub scrambled to strengthen its moderation practices, deleting millions of unverified uploads from the platform and prohibiting anyone who hadn't had their identification verified from uploading new content to the site. 

Recently, it started requiring paperwork showing that each person in every video had consented to being in the video and having it uploaded to the site. 

A bearded man with glasses wearing jeans, sneakers and a blue button-up shirt sits on a chair and poses for a photo.
Solomon Friedman, co-founder of Ethical Capital Partners, is the new owner of Pornhub. (JOEL SAGET/AFP/Getty Images)

Pornhub's future

In 2023, Mindgeek, Pornhub's Montreal-based parent company, was bought by Ethical Capital Partners and is now known as Aylo. 

In recent interviews, the new owners of Pornhub and its sibling sites emphasized that the site is safer than ever. They also said Pornhub's era as a tube site is over.

"This is a content sharing platform with verified uploaders and full moderation," said Solomon Friedman, partner and vice-president of compliance at Ethical Capital Partners.

But Visa and Mastercard still haven't returned, and Pornhub's future, as well as the future of all porn on the internet, hangs in the balance. 

WATCH | What can be done to block kids from visiting Pornhub?

Can Canada really block kids from watching porn? | About That

3 months ago
Duration 8:26
A bill aimed at blocking kids from accessing explicit content on sites like Pornhub is going before a House of Commons committee. About That producer Lauren Bird explains how an online age-verification system might work, and its potential implications for privacy and freedom of expression.

Age verification bills like the one recently introduced in Canada and several others in the U.S. are gaining popularity. These bills require adult sites to verify the ages of all users — not just uploaders, but visitors as well — to prevent minors from visiting. 

Adult entertainment professionals agree that their industry should be safe, and kids shouldn't have access to their content. But critics of the legislation say the methods being proposed pose a privacy risk to consenting adults. 

An article published by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit that defends civil liberties in the digital world, noted that though age verification mandates are limited in terms of what data they retain and disclose, there's still a significant risk.   

"Users are forced to trust that the website they visit, or its third-party verification service, both of which could be fly-by-night companies with no published privacy standards, are following these rules," the article read. 

Laptops featuring Pornhub logo and prohibited signs to indicate age restrictions for viewing.
Age verification bills for sites like Pornhub that feature adult content are gaining popularity in the U.S. and Canada and if they prove effective could limit the reach of sites that have long been widely accessible to anyone with an internet connection. (Ben Shannon/CBC)

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) also wrote that the "legitimate fear of having personal information exposed may deter adults from accessing legal and consensual adult content, thereby limiting their freedom to explore and express themselves in a private digital space."

Being forced to show government issued ID and getting a biometric face scan to visit a porn site attempting to comply with the law — as is already happening in Louisiana — won't prevent minors from seeing porn, but it will likely drive people to less compliant, less moderated sites, where minors can still see explicit material. 

Where Pornhub goes from here is unclear, but the adult industry is resilient.

Porn, and the audience for it, isn't going anywhere, but the legislation, rights and freedoms that impact performers and users eventually affects us all.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Sam Cole

Reporter

Samantha Cole is a journalist and co-founder of 404 Media, where she covers technology and the adult industry. She's the host of The Pornhub Empire: Understood, by CBC Podcasts, and was formerly a senior editor at Motherboard, Vice's tech outlet.