Benjamin Cohen: Mum, this is my porn empire...

He was 15 when he founded JewishNet.co.uk, with kosher recipes and a cyber rabbi, but his real money-maker is a search engine for porn sites. Meanwhile, he still lives with his parents and a yappy dog. And he wants to study theology
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The Independent Online

So, off to meet Benjamin Cohen who, at 15, founded JewishNet.co.uk in his bedroom – once valued at £5m – and then went on to found cyberbritain.com, which features a rather specific, free search facility called Hunt4Porn. Currently, it has 160,000 registered users, of which I am one, yes. (For research purposes only, although I must say "fat chicks getting their hooters out" at bigfatporn.com made my own cellulite look almost hilariously inconsequential, which was rather pleasing.) The trick now, though, would be to somehow unregister. I don't mind for myself, but it is a bit embarrassing when someone logs on to our home computer after me. Indeed, as my partner recently called out: "I keep getting these flashes on screen asking me if I'm interested in hot ebony chicks."

"Are you?"

"Possibly."

I find this rather hurtful, I must say. OK, I'm not a hot ebony chick but, for an ageing Jewish princess (with cellulite that might not be as grievous as I once thought), I can be quite lively in the bedroom department. Sometimes, I even put down my emery board. Not often, but sometimes. Just to show willing and all that. You may, even, wish to visit my own website – SizzlinglyCuteCuticles.com – which, strangely, has yet to acquire any registered users...

Benjamin runs his business from a high-rise block in Paddington, in west London. Here, one of his workmates, Robert, comes to reception to collect me. The thing about these hyped-up, supposedly squillionaire dot.com wonderboys is that they are all so terrifyingly young, aren't they? Robert looks about 12.

"Hello," I say. "Are you 12?"

"No," bristles Robert, offended.

"Twelve and a half, then?"

"I'm 19, actually," he says, straightening his back and puffing his (sparrow) chest out. It's almost touching.

Robert adds that CyberBritain's offices are on the 14th floor. I say I hope we're not going to walk it. Hot ebony chicks might do stairs, but ageing Jewish princesses do not.

"We've got four lifts," says Robert. I don't think I've especially impressed him as a go-getting, energetic dot.com type yet. I hope to do better with Benjamin. I don't know how much store one is meant to set by these sorts of things, but according to the latest figures, I read that CyberBritain is now worth £20m. Which is a lot of emery boards. And maybe a little BMW sporty thing with power steering, too.

Benjamin is now 18, with sticky-up hair that I think he's quite fussy about in an appropriate teenage way. "Hang on," he says to the photographer. "I've got to gel my hair." Actually, today is not a good day for Benjamin. CyberBritain is relaunching with a new design, and, "I've got to upload it this afternoon". Plus, Benjamin suffers from ME and, "I've had a terrible headache, a really bad one, for the last couple of days".

Benjamin founded JewishNet.co.uk while off school with ME. The first Jewish portal of its kind, it offered an agony aunt, dating service, kosher recipes and, even, a cyber rabbi who, at one point, was answering a thousand queries a month. Queries like what, Benjamin? "One girl wanted to know if it was alright to get a tattoo on her bottom." Was it? "The rabbi thought that if it was on her bottom, where no one would see it, it would be OK."

Benjamin has always been startlingly entrepreneurial. Indeed, when he was six, "I'd sell ice lollies from a stall outside my house for 20p a go. They cost me 10p each."

After two years, CyberBritain – a network that uses Hermia, an intelligent search engine devised by Benjamin to categorise Web content – has only just gone into the black. Still, he's just licensed it to Egg, Powergen, Tiny Computers, the official Arsenal site, and is confident of "making a million this year". Meanwhile, he pays himself £25,000 a year. Oh. So not so many emery boards, then. And certainly no little BMW sporty thing. "But still good for my age!" he exclaims. And Hunt4Porn, does that make money? Absolutely, he says. "The truth is, the only real money to be made from the internet is pornography. That and gambling." Indeed, the word most commonly typed into search engines generally is "sex". And the word most commonly typed into Hunt4Porn? "Sex, too. And then lesbian." I wonder if he ever worries about some of the people who may be using Hunt4Porn.

"No. It's business. If they weren't using my search engine, they'd be using someone else's."

"Oh, come on," I say, "that's a crap argument. It's like saying, if I don't sell arms to Iraq, someone else will."

"Yes, but guns kill people. There are degrees of nastiness."

"Heroin then."

"Heroin is illegal. Porn is legal. And I'm not making the porn."

"But you are making money from it."

"Sure. It's business. I don't think what I do is immoral. Banning porn is probably wrong. If a woman wants to take her clothes off, why should someone stop her?"

"Is there Jewish pornography, as such?"

"There is a Jewish Chicks page, but I'm not sure what's on it. Nudes cooking chicken soup probably."

"Do you enjoy pornography?"

"It's not my cup of tea, actually. Personally, I find it a bit dull. Like I've said, it's business."

"How do you make money?"

"Porn-users are the most likely to buy on the internet, because they're happy to give their credit-card details. Marketing companies are very interested in them."

"So, you sell their details on?"

"No, the marketing companies pay us to advertise to them."

I wonder what his mum, Rochelle, thinks of it all. "Oh, my mum is quite blasé about it." His grandparents? "Grandma thinks it's funny. Grandpa, who used to be MD of Ladbrokes, does nude paintings at art college."

Benjamin still lives at home in Elstree, Hertfordshire, with his parents – dad, Richard, legal director of Epoch Software, which offers legal services over the internet – his two sisters, and a bulging-eyed, rat-like, yappy, snappy chihuahua called Laa-Laa. I know about Laa-Laa because, later, I go back home with Benjamin, where Laa-Laa tries to bite a lump out of the back of one of my relatively (and I do stress the "relatively") cellulite-free legs. Couldn't you get a proper dog, Benjamin? "We're not really doggy people," he says.

He shows me his bedroom, where it all began. It is lime and turquoise, with a sweet little single bed and, still, Winnie the Pooh books in the bookcase. Have you had sex, Benjamin?

"I'm not telling you that."

"Why not?"

"Because I'm just not."

Benjamin, by the way, is a Tory, an admirer of William Hague who, yes, would one day like to get into politics himself. "Do you think the porn thing will be a hurdle?" he asks. One can only hope, I suppose. He was born and brought up in Elstree. A conventional childhood until the ME. "I had glandular fever and just didn't seem to get better. Our own doctor said: 'Oh, he just doesn't want to go to school.' But I'm not a malingerer." (He has since received treatment from a specialist at the Royal Free Hospital.) He claims that his school at that time – Queen Elizabeth Boys in Barnet – was totally unsupportive. "They couldn't be bothered." He'd been expected to get 10 As at O-level, but in the end, took only five subjects. He studied at home, by himself, with five revision books from WH Smith, "and got 4 As and a B". He is, undoubtedly, a bright boy.

He moved to the Jewish Free School in north London, where he got an A (economics) and a B (English) at A-level, even though he can't write for sustained periods, and for the exams, had to dictate his answers to "someone who'd write it down for me. This turned out to be an old sewing teacher who couldn't spell". He is due to go to King's College London in October, to study religion, ethics and theology. Religion, ethics and theology? "Yes. I'm just interested. A lot of business people do theology degrees."

Whatever, during the worst of the ME, many of his friends deserted him, too. "So, for two years, I was mostly by myself." Then, one morning, an AOL disc happened to come through the letter box. "I was fascinated by it. It was a way of keeping in touch, meeting new people. I also realised that, for not much money, I could create a website with the potential to reach millions of people."

Although JewishNet was valued at £5m at one point, he eventually sold it to another Jewish portal, TotallyJewish.com, for £300,000 in shares. Not a great bit of business, as it turned out. "When I came to sell them, they were worth £70,000 and I could only sell £40 worth."

Benjamin, I can now see, may have talked himself up quite a lot.

Whatever, it's time to go. He's tired. He mustn't do too much, he says, although, what with his businesses and A-levels and all that, it's hard to see how this is avoided. Home I go. Oops, though. I forget to ask him how to unregister at Hunt4Porn. "I keep being asked if I want to see some sizzling lesbian action," my partner calls out.

"Do you?"

"Possibly."

Now, how mean is that? I've got beautiful nails, by the way. Very shapely. And on view, of course, at SizzlinglyCuteCuticles.com. (Please tick appropriate box if you are interested in hearing about further developments from this company, which may soon incorporate HardCoreFiling.co.uk and ManicureMadness.net.)

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