Back in the early days of internet porn, Bella Vendetta had a brilliant idea for creating a new website. “It’s a celebration of sex, it’s a celebration of females who are a slap in the face of the ‘boring, normal, make me yawn, who wants to see another girl getting naked in a pool chair kind of porn site,’” declared the manifesto on the self-titled BellaVendetta.com. “It’s a collection of modified people, alternative people, beautiful photography and real underground kink.”
The site was punk rock. It was hardcore, and it gave viewers a glimpse into an underground kink scene to which most people never get access. It was unlike anything else being marketed at the time. There was just one problem: Payment processors refused to work with Vendetta.
The Payment Processors Are in Control
In the world of online commerce, payment processors are the linchpin holding everything together. Unlike brick-and-mortar shops, online retailers can’t accept cash, so payment processors facilitate online credit card payments. Even if the term “payment processor” is foreign to you, you’ve definitely interacted with one, 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.
But payment processors aren’t a neutral player. As Vendetta discovered in 2003, these companies are guided by a complex set of rules and regulations handed down by credit card companies and banks. On the surface, it might seem like these rules are purely about regulating which businesses can—and can’t—accept payments using Visa, Mastercard, or PayPal. But a simple investigation makes it clear that payment processors, and the credit card companies and banks that back them, are powerful forces of online censorship.
Speech Isn’t as Free as You Might Think
“Online speech depends on a whole chain of intermediaries that most people aren’t aware of,” says Corynne McSherry, legal director for the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Consumer-facing companies like Facebook and Twitter are the ones 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 far more power than Mark Zuckerberg when it comes to determining what does and doesn’t get posted online.
For adult industry veterans like Vendetta, now the CEO of TreasureCams, this is old news. Before a porn site can open for business, its content is heavily scrutinized by payment processors, which assess whether the banks they partner with will deem the site to comply with regulations established by Visa and Mastercard.
“Online speech depends on a whole chain of intermediaries that most people aren’t aware of.”
In the case of BellaVendetta.com, several details set off the payment processors’ alarms. Blood appeared in some scenes. Weapons were used as sex toys. Models engaged in consensual nonconsent, role-playing kidnap, and even rape scenes. But it’s not just the extreme kink that BellaVendetta.com reveled in that runs afoul of payment processors. The ban