Thursday’s decision by creator platform OnlyFans to stop hosting a wide range of sexually explicit content soon is sending shockwaves across the internet.
OnlyFans, a website with 130 million users and over 2 million content creators, has become synonymous with pornography. For many, playing on the app is a lifeline: Some who lost their jobs during the pandemic have turned to sharing explicit videos of themselves on OnlyFans to help pay the bills. Many of these sex workers are now express indignation to what they see as OnlyFans’ betrayal of a community that has made the platform so successful.
Not all explicit content from OnlyFans disappears; simple nudity will always be allowed, the company said, as long as it complies with the platform’s other policies. Only “content containing sexually explicit conduct” – which presumably means sexual acts in front of a camera – will be banned, he said in a statement.
Venture capital firms are often reluctant to invest in platforms that host adult content. According to internal documents obtained by Axios, OnlyFans’ popularity and income both exploded during the pandemic, but he struggled to secure outside investment.
OnlyFans’ move is also the result of a much broader and concerted crackdown over the past few years across explicit parts of the internet, driven largely by a group of powerful and increasingly assertive companies: the payment processors behind the scenes handling every swipe of your credit card, whether you’re paying for gas, shopping for groceries, or, yes, tip an artist on OnlyFans.
In its announcement this week, OnlyFans said its decision was motivated with a view to building a long-term sustainable platform. “These changes must comply with the demands of our banking partners and payment providers,” he added.
Seth Eisen, a spokesperson for Mastercard, told CNN Business he was not involved in OnlyFans’ decision to restrict what content he would allow on the platform. “It’s a decision they came to on their own,” Eisen said. Other payment processors did not immediately respond to a request for comment for this story.
OnlyFans’ decision to attribute its policy change to payment companies reflects how the financial industry has increasingly leaned against sites that share adult content. But the problem, they say, is not mere prudishness, but legal exposure.
“I think we’re on the verge of a cultural shift in the financial industry that takes this issue much more seriously,” said Haley McNamara, vice president of the National Center on Sexual Exploitation, an advocacy group that started last year to pressure payment companies to act more aggressively on sexually abusive content.
Credit card companies are increasingly aware of their own potential legal risk, McNamara added, if they are accused of facilitating sex trafficking or the dissemination of child pornography.
Last December, Discover, Mastercard and Visa all announced they would suspend payments to Pornhub, one of the web’s biggest porn sites, over allegations the site hosted child pornography. In response, Pornhub cleaned its site of all videos that were not produced by verified partners and implemented a verification program that all users should follow if they wanted to post adult content. Although Visa has subsequently agreed to restore service to some adult sites owned by Pornhub’s parent, MindGeek, Pornhub itself remains cut off from credit card processors; the platform still only accepts payments by direct bank transfer and cryptocurrency.
Then, in April, Mastercard implemented a series of new requirements governing adult content transactions. The move, Mastercard said, was aimed at tackling illegal adult material.
“Banks that connect merchants to our network will need to certify that the adult content seller has effective controls in place to monitor, block and, if necessary, remove any illegal content,” Mastercard said.
Platforms would be required to verify the age and identity of those who posted and were represented in online porn, Mastercard said, and would have to have a process to review adult content before it is posted. Adult sites should have a complaints process that can “respond” to illegal or non-consensual content within seven days, and provide avenues for people portrayed in adult content to request removal of that content.
The new rules have revealed the power of the payments industry to shape the way millions of people experience the internet. And Mastercard is not the only one.
“Mastercard is the most proactive, [but] we had conversations with Visa and other credit cards [networks] too, ”McNamara said.“ A number of payment processors are waiting to see how Mastercard’s policies perform. “
The financial industry’s muscle flexing has drawn criticism from digital rights activists who argue that it weighs heavily.
“Visa and Mastercard, working together, are currently a bottleneck for online payments,” wrote digital rights advocates at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “This means that every arbitrary policy of these two companies can translate into rules that all websites that wish to process payments must follow.”
The role of the payments industry in shaping the Internet dates back several years. In 2015, Visa, Mastercard, and American Express shut down the services of Backpage.com, a website which, according to a multi-year Senate investigation, had knowingly facilitated sex trafficking by allowing advertisements for prostitution. Over the following years, the momentum against Backpage continued; the Justice Department seized its website in 2018, and its creators were indicted days later.
Around the same time, then-US President Donald Trump enacted an anti-sex trafficking bill known as SESTA-FOSTA, under which online platforms could be held accountable if they hosted advertisements of a sexual nature, including consensual sex. Supporters of the law said it would help fight sexual abuse. But in recent years the narrative surrounding SESTA-FOSTA has changed as platforms like Craigslist removed all personal classifieds rather than risk breaking the law and sex workers themselves have increasingly supported. that the law was making their profession less secure by pushing them further underground – even though a federal report this year found that SESTA-FOSTA has in fact rarely been used in legal proceedings.
Now sex workers are raising their voices again, this time to defend their ability to represent themselves on digital platforms like OnlyFans.
Several of the creators of OnlyFans told CNN Business they were frustrated and angry with OnlyFans’ announcement, adding that the move would cost creators their livelihoods and networks and could ultimately lead to a decline in popularity of OnlyFans. ‘OnlyFans as a platform.
“The real bad guys here are the payment processors, the silent and obscure blacklist cabal that dictates the kind of moral behavior we’re allowed to engage in, which without any sort of oversight can wipe out any business from. his choice”, tweeted a San Francisco-based OnlyFans creator named @Aella_Girl.
The creation of what is essentially a new content policy regime enforced by private payment networks says a lot more about the influence of the financial sector than about the websites subject to its enforcement, according to legal experts.
Payment processors have every right to determine which transactions they will and will not support on their networks. In that regard, they’re not that different from platforms like Facebook and Twitter, which are hugely powerful in themselves, said Danielle Citron, a University of Virginia law professor who studies content moderation in. online and who also helps run Cyber Civil. Rights Initiative, a group that campaigns against non-consensual pornography.
Much like social media companies, payment processors are protected by Section 230 of the Communications Act of 1934, Citron said. It’s the Signature Law that grants Facebook and Twitter broad legal immunity for many of the content moderation decisions they make – and the law that SESTA-FOSTA amended to create an exception for sexual ads.
Citron wants to see changes to Section 230 that could expose platforms to greater liability in certain circumstances. Perhaps, she said, these changes could even allow sex workers who believe their businesses have been wronged by payment processors to sue them for tortious interference.
“We’re talking about OnlyFans, where we see sex workers doing safe work. It’s from their homes, they create content on their own terms,” Citron said.
“Payment processors have tremendous power over sites like OnlyFans and Pornhub,” she added. “These are private companies. But should we be worried about what kind of power they have?