Who really controls the internet?

Back in the early days of internet porn, Bella Vendetta had a great idea for a new website. “It’s a celebration of sex, it’s a celebration of ‘boring, normal, make me yawn’ face-slapping females who want to see another girl undressing on a pool chair kind of porn site,” declared the statement on the self-titled BellaVendetta.com. A group of modified people, alternate people, beautiful photography and real underground networking.”

The location was punk rock. It was scandalous, and gave viewers a glimpse of an underground grating scene that most people would never have access to. It was not like anything else being marketed at the time. There was only one problem: Payment processors refused to work with Vendetta.

Payment processors under control

In the world of online commerce, payment processors are the backbone that holds everything together. Unlike traditional stores, online retailers cannot accept cash, so payment processors facilitate online credit card payments. Even if the term “payment processor” sounds strange to you, you’ve definitely interacted with one of them, whether in the form of a consumer-facing mobile payment company like PayPal, SquareCash, or Venmo, or a business-facing company like CCBill, Epoch or SegPay.

beautiful revenge

But payment processors are not a neutral player. As Vendetta discovered in 2003, these companies are guided by a complex set of rules and regulations issued by credit card companies and banks. On the surface, these rules may appear to be only about regulating which companies can – and cannot – accept payments using Visa, Mastercard or PayPal. But a simple investigation shows that payment processors, and the credit card companies and banks that support them, are powerful forces of internet censorship.

Speech is not as free as you might think

“Online speech is based on a whole chain of intermediaries that most people don’t know about,” says Corynne McSherry, legal director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Consumer-facing companies like Facebook and Twitter are the companies most likely to make headlines for their content policies. But domain name registrars, DNS providers, and payment processors – the invisible infrastructure of the Internet – wield much more power than Mark Zuckerberg when it comes to deciding what is and isn’t posted online.

For adult industry veterans like Vendetta, who is now CEO of TreasureCams, this is old news. Before a business porn site is even opened, its content is heavily vetted by payment processors, which assess whether the banks you partner with will consider the site to comply with the regulations set by Visa and Mastercard.

“Online speech relies on a whole chain of intermediaries that most people don’t know about.”

Corynne McSherry, Legal Director, EFF

In the case of BellaVendetta.com, several details triggered the alerts of payment processors. Blood appeared in some scenes. Weapons were used as sex toys. Models have participated in non-consensual kidnapping scenes, role-playing and even rape scenes. But it’s not just the severe error shown by BellaVendetta.com that interferes with payment processors. The blood ban in porn scenes is often interpreted as including menstruation, for example. Having sex while completely restrained is frowned upon. Even something as banal as a porn scene where performers drink alcohol can be enough for payment processors to sever ties, because it can be interpreted as poor consent, which does not preclude the use of Visa and Mastercard.

For most professional pornographic designers, these regulations are just one of the costs of doing business, often quite literally. Payment processors routinely charge additional payment processing fees for adult businesses.

“I’ve owned a studio for 13 years… All these rules have been in me for only 13 years,” says Dominic Ford, creator of fan site Just For Fans. But the fact that many pornographers have managed to adapt to the system does not mean that they do not face risks. Banks and credit card companies can change their regulations — or their interpretation of the regulations — at any moment, immediately turning an approved company out of the way, possibly upending the company’s entire revenue stream in the process.

Dominic Ford

Dominic Ford, creator of Just For Fans

In late 2020, for example, Discover, Mastercard, and Visa stopped accepting payments from Pornhub due to concerns that the platform was hosting thousands of child porn and rape videos. Came after the previous The New York Times Columnist Nicholas Kristof has documented how easy it is to redistribute offending videos on the site. The resulting headlines prompted Pornhub to delete nearly 10 million videos from its website.

Last spring, Mastercard then announced that the banks it works with would be required to “certify” that adult content providers have “effective controls to monitor, block and remove all illegal content as necessary” — citing the increasing ease with people being able to upload content online. .

PayPal may not be your friend

The ramifications could extend far beyond business accounts. PayPal, which strongly refuses to process payments for any sex-related work, routinely closes personal accounts of sex workers, seizing any funds in the account in the process. Just last month, three PayPal users filed a class-action lawsuit against the company for the seizure of tens of thousands of dollars without warning.

Vendetta once froze her personal PayPal account amid a fundraiser for a local event. “I violated their TOS by working in the adult industry,” she says. “The money wasn’t from the adult industry, and I wasn’t using it for any adult services, but it didn’t matter.” The $1,500 that was in her account disappeared into the PayPal vaults.

It’s not just about porn

While the adult industry is at the forefront of this oversight, you don’t have to be a sex factor to feel its effects. Tor supporters, pagan dating sites, and even independent publishing platforms have faced financial scrutiny.

Since credit companies and banks are private companies, they have wide discretion when it comes to who they do business with. It doesn’t matter if your business is legal: If banks don’t like what you’re doing – or try to avoid legal or regulatory scrutiny – they can cut off your access to financial services, severely hampering your ability to work online. Getting candid answers is often a futile exercise; The people’s direct contact points are too far from the actual decision makers to reflect their decisions.

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“I can’t ship money [online] for people to see. But I can put it in a museum.”

– Bella Vendetta, CEO of TreasureCams

Even if you are not doing business online, you can still feel the effects of this censorship. Facebook and Twitter rely on relationships with banks and credit card companies to run their affairs (for example, collecting payments from advertisers). If these financial institutions choose to do so, they can refuse to process payments as long as certain content is allowed – and users whose posts are suddenly deemed infringing will have no real recourse.

In the adult industry, content creators are forced to contend with the multi-layered Byzantine system of industry players. For many, their only direct connection is with the platforms they use. Last summer, for example, OnlyFans said it would have to ban pornography, citing pressure from the financial industry, particularly JPMorgan Chase. She later retracted this ban, but not before several creators scramble to find alternatives.

Is there a better way?

For people who have found themselves on the wrong side of the bank’s content standards, it is clear that this system is fundamentally broken, which does not mean that it is beyond repair. One obvious solution is for credit card companies to adhere to the Santa Clara Principles, which call for greater clarity around their content guidelines and a clear and direct appeals process for people who find themselves at the intersection of politics.

McSherry believes that Santa Clara principles are not enough. “Companies that primarily provide infrastructure really need to get out of the content moderation business,” she says. “If they don’t have a court order asking them to do something, they should stay out of work completely.”

Back in the early days, Vendetta was able to get their site online by turning to a European payment processor that earned a whopping 27% commission on their sales. But it turned out to be only a temporary solution. After cycling through a few other payment processors, I eventually gave up: BellaVendetta.com was too much trouble to keep going. These days, it’s sticking with less controversial content, shooting videos that can be approved by payment processors that work with sites like OnlyFans and Clips4Sale.

For Vendetta, there is a certain irony in how things turn out in the end. The Internet has always been marketed as an area of ​​absolute freedom, but through her experience, the offline world has been more willing to support her work. The extremist content on which she made her name is still shown at film festivals and has been shown at the Whitney Museum in New York City, but is no longer available online.

“I can’t ship money [online] For people to see.” “But I can put it in a museum.”

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