Who gets to decide what stays and goes on the internet? It's the prevailing question for tech platforms today. Should it be Facebook? Google? The government? Users themselves?
In the case of OnlyFans, an online platform that caters to adult content, the answer as to who's calling the shots appears to be: Visa and MasterCard.
On Thursday, OnlyFans made a surprise announcement that beginning in October, it would ban all "sexually explicit" content from its platform, following "requests of our banking partners and payout providers." The news created an uproar among content creators who rely on the site for income.
Now, those creators and others are placing the blame squarely on credit card companies that have begun taking an increasingly hard-line stance against sites that host adult content and the banks that process their payments. These companies, they argue, have far too much power to influence online content, and they're flexing that power in ways that have dangerous consequences for content creators and sex workers.
"While many will blame OnlyFans for sacrificing sex workers in pursuit of investment capital and mainstream recognition, we need to be frank about where the true fault lies: with the banks and credit card companies like Mastercard, who have refused to stand up to a misguided and ill-intentioned evangelical War on Porn," the Free Speech Coalition, a trade association for the adult entertainment industry, said in a statement. "Companies like Mastercard are now accomplices in the disenfranchisement of millions of sex workers, complicit in pushing workers away from independence into potentially more dangerous and exploitative conditions."
Visa and MasterCard have a solid hold on the credit card industry in the U.S. According to Motley Fool, in 2018 nearly half of Americans had a Visa credit card, while nearly 40% had a Mastercard. Both companies have spent billions along the way to settle antitrust suits, but their continued dominance gives them enormous control over platforms' ability to make money.
Last year, following an op-ed in The New York Times about child sexual abuse material appearing on Pornhub, Visa, Mastercard and Discover cut Pornhub off from all payments. Pornhub responded by radically changing its policies to prohibit video uploads from unverified accounts, launching a new biometric verification system for performers and purging millions of unverified videos from its platform.
Mastercard has since updated its policies for banks that process payments from sites that host adult content. The new policies require that the sites have content review processes in place, as well as proof of consent, age and identification for people involved in the content. In July, after extensive meetings with Mastercard, the National Center on Sexual Exploitation awarded Mastercard with the corporate leadership award for its new policies.
Visa didn't respond to Protocol's request for comment about the role their policies may have played in OnlyFans' decision. Mastercard's senior vice president of communications Seth Eisen told Protocol the company found out about OnlyFans' policy changes through media reports. "It's a decision they came to themselves," Eisen said. "With respect to the registration requirements we put in place earlier this year, those are focused on preventing unauthorized and illegal adult content where our products are accepted. There's no impact on legal content and activity."
Voices in the adult entertainment industry are not alone in speaking out about consolidation in the payment-processing market. Advocates for free expression more broadly also frame OnlyFans' decision as an issue of corporate power. "Payment processing has long provided a convenient choke-point for censorship," Evan Greer, director of the digital rights group Fight for the Future, wrote in a Twitter thread Friday.
"As long as businesses like OnlyFans are reliant on centralized tech infrastructure, they will always behave like businesses that are 'renting' & not 'owning,' and they'll always be scared that their landlords (Mastercard/Visa, Paypal, Amazon Web Services) will evict them," Greer continued.
Free speech advocates have, of course, made similar arguments regarding content moderation decisions of tech giants like Facebook, arguing that any moderation risks censorship. The difference is, when Facebook bans a certain category of content, that doesn't automatically mean it's banned from other social networks. The policy decisions made by credit-card companies, by contrast, cut across industries.
This is one reason why content moderation by companies that run the infrastructure of the internet — whether that's payment processors or cloud service providers — is particularly fraught. In 2017, network security company Cloudflare cut off service to the neo-Nazi site The Daily Stormer, in a decision that even its CEO Matthew Prince described as "so dangerous." Despite the backlash to that decision and the company's own self-reflection, two years later, Cloudflare cut off service to 8chan in the wake of the mass shooting in El Paso. More recently, Amazon Web Services, as well as the Apple and Google app stores, banned Parler from their platforms following the Jan. 6 insurrection.
These and other decisions have raised thorny questions about how much power any company ought to have to prevent certain forms of speech, even the most odious, from existing on the internet at all. "There's a lot of consensus about this at ISP level, that's #NetNeutrality," Greer wrote, "but we need to think beyond that."