Pornhub under accusation in Italy for illegal data collection

Every month, more than 2 billion people visit Pornhub, spending an average of nearly eight minutes browsing and watching videos, an eternity in the age of the Internet. This activity has the potential to generate huge volumes of data.

Pornhub is currently facing a series of legal challenges across Europe over the data it collects . Complaints filed in the European Union state that the porn site does not follow basic data collection policies under the GDPR keeping in mind that there are not many websites bigger than Pornhub.

Italian activists and researchers are filing a complaint against Pornhub , saying the company is ” illegally ” handling the data of millions of people. The complaint is based on a technical analysis of the website and its privacy practices and is also based on previously unreported complaints in both Italy and Cyprus, where Pornhub is headquartered in Europe. These complaints allege that the company violates Europe’s strict GDPR rules, which govern how people’s data can and should be used.

Pornhub not allows people to choose easily not to be tracked by cookies, the site is also not clear about the data it shares with third parties and its algorithm “assigns” sexual preferences to people, based on the videos they watch, this is what was stated by Alessandro Polidoro, digital rights activist and lawyer leading the litigation.

Polidoro represents #StopDataPorn, a collective that includes researchers and civil liberties organizations and are involved in the action. Polidoro spoke to WIRED about the legal complaints but did not reveal the text, due to the privacy of those involved.

The complaints, which could take years to resolve, come as the major online adult industry faces increased scrutiny from privacy authorities around the world, with governments they are blocking those sites that ask people to show identification to access adult material.

Polidoro says the group found “many” potential problems with how Pornhub uses people’s data, but decided to focus on three areas. First, there’s the issue of people giving consent to be tracked, Polidoro says. Under European privacy laws, if a website wants to track someone, it must obtain consent . That’s why websites need to have cookie consent popups.

If you open YouTube, for example in Europe, a pop-up appears telling you how cookies are used and giving people the option to accept, reject or customize them . Instead, if you open Pornhub, a banner appears at the bottom of the page that says the website uses cookies, includes an option to find more information, and a button that says “OK,” but provides no way to select the option. to prevent cookies from tracking you. (The banner does not appear in the UK or US, according to WIRED’s testing.)

Pornhub doesn’t ask for consent ,” says Polidoro. “Pornhub deals with users’ sexual preferences and does not ask for consent.” Polidoro says cookies are used whether someone clicks “OK” or not.

The second element of the problems with GDPR, Polidoro says, has to do with the way Pornhub shares information which he collects with other companies owned by him parent company MindGeek, which is based in Canada and was recently purchased by private equity firm Ethical Capital Partners. The #StopDataPorn collective says there is little transparency about what data is shared and how it is used.

The third part of the complaints alleges that Pornhub uses people’s data and ” unilaterally assigns sexual preferences to each individual without their knowledge,” according to the collective’s statements . Polidoro says that it is enough to watch a small number of videos for more of the type of content seen to be shown.

Freely available tools that monitor the trackers used by websites, such as Blacklight and Privacy Badger , show that Pornhub data is transmitted to Google via its proprietary analytics and tag manager platform and also through TrafficJunky, MindGeek’s proprietary advertising platform .

TraffickJunky says its ads are viewed 3.2 billion times a day .

The tracking technology used by Pornhub can store the IDs of videos you view, using the “watchedVideoStorage” and “watchedVideoIds” keys, found on your computer or phone, WIRED’s tests found. Every time you watch a video, even if you’re not logged in to Pornhub, an ID number is added to a list in your browser’s local storage. “They basically create a parallel search history stored directly on the user’s device,” Polidoro says.

A spokesperson for MindGeek says the company does not comment on ongoing litigation and will respond “as appropriate and in a timely manner.” “MindGeek is committed to protecting user privacy and continually implements measures to safeguard the personal data of everyone in its community,” the spokesperson says.

Pornhub’s privacy policy , where it details the data it can collect about people, states that it uses cookies for multiple purposes. For example, it uses cookies to help people log in, to “personalize and improve” people’s online experience, to record how many people use its website, and to track the pages people visit and serve ads. “You can set your browser to refuse all or some browser cookies, or to alert you when cookies are being sent,” the privacy policy states. It also says that Pornhub has enabled Google Analytics IP anonymization, so full IP addresses are not stored.

Emily van der Nagel, a social media professor at Monash University in Australia who researches social media identities, says that while Pornhub’s privacy policy includes what data it collects and uses, it’s “probably unlikely” that the average user look at this information.

“If data collection appears to be happening at a technical level, by an opaque organization, with no understanding of the social consequences, users are unlikely to attempt to positively or negatively intervene in data collection,” says Nagel.

“But if there is a real threat of social harm, such as when pornographic preferences emerge as targeted ads and are prominently displayed on a work computer , in which case users become aware of what data pornographic websites collect about them and seek to intervene in that data collection and use.”

While a new GDPR complaint was filed in Italy, the #StopDataPorn group also filed broader complaints last year through officials in Italy and Cyprus.

Irene Loizidou Nicolaidou, Cyprus’ data protection commissioner, says she cannot comment as there is a “pending audit” of Pornhub and the case is ongoing.

Much of the research underlying the complaints was completed by Tracking Exposed, a digital rights group that developed a custom browser extension to analyze Pornhub’s personalization algorithm. The group published a peer-reviewed analysis of Pornhub’s algorithm in May 2022 .

The complaints are likely to draw attention to how much data pornography websites collect and how they handle that information. In general, pornographic companies can collect enormous amounts of data about those who visit them. In 2019, researchers analyzed 22,484 pornographic websites and found that 93% of them leak data to third parties, 44.97% “expose or suggest” a gender or sexual identity that could be linked to the user and 79% use tracking cookies from external companies.

Google trackers were found on the vast majority of websites, according to the research. “Since Pornhub is modeled after YouTube, it is no surprise that similar practices are also present on social media data,” says Susanna Paasonen, a professor of media studies at the University of Turku, Finland, who studies sexuality and pornography .

“The degree to which this is obvious to casual users is, however, impossible to predict.” Paasonen points to the fact that in recent years Pornhub has highlighted how much data it can collect through its Insights series , which details website traffic trends and provides some transparency. “But since there are no opt-outs, as required by the GDPR and I doubt many users read their privacy policy, which makes the tracking quite obvious, the transparency towards users is questionable,” says Paasonen. For most people, using privacy browsers or privacy-enhancing browser extensions can help limit the data collected and how it is tracked.