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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 on blood in porn scenes is frequently interpreted to include menstruation, for example. Having sex while completely tied up is frowned upon. Even something as mundane as a porn scene where the performers are drinking alcohol can be enough for payment processors to sever ties, because it can be interpreted as impaired consent, a major no-no for Visa and Mastercard.
For most professional pornographers, these regulations are just one of the costs of doing business, often literally. Payment processors routinely charge additional fees to process payments to adult businesses.
“I’ve owned a studio for 13 years…all these rules have kind of been just in me for 13 years,” says Dominic Ford, the creator of fan site Just For Fans. But the fact that many pornographers have been able to adapt to the system doesn’t mean they don’t face risk. Banks and credit card companies can change their regulations—or their interpretations of the regulations—at a moment’s notice, instantly turning an approved business into a scofflaw, and potentially upending a company’s entire revenue stream in the process.
Dominic Ford, creator of Just For Fans
In late 2020, for example, Discover, Mastercard, and Visa stopped accepting payments from Pornhub over concerns the platform was hosting thousands of child porn and rape video clips. It came after former New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof documented how easily the offending videos recirculated on the site. The resulting headlines prompted Pornhub to purge approximately 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 had “effective controls in place to monitor, block and, where necessary, take down all illegal content”—citing the increasing ease with which people can upload content to the internet.
PayPal May Not Be Your Pal
The fallout can extend far beyond one’s business accounts. PayPal, which aggressively refuses to process payments for any sex-related business, routinely shutters the 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 seizing tens of thousands of dollars without warning.
Vendetta once had her personal PayPal account frozen in the midst of a fundraiser for a local event. “I violated their TOS by being in the adult industry,” she says. “It wasn’t money from the adult industry, and I wasn’t using it for any adult services, but it didn’t matter.” The $1,500 that had been in her account vanished into PayPal’s coffers.
It’s Not Just About Porn
While the adult industry is at the forefront of this censorship, you don’t have to be a sex worker to feel its effects. Tor supporters, fetish dating sites, and even indie publishing platforms have all faced financial censorship.
Because credit companies and banks are private businesses, they have broad discretion when it comes to who they do business with. It doesn’t matter if your work is legal: If banks don’t like what you do—or they’re trying to avoid legal or regulatory scrutiny—they can cut off your access to financial services, severely hampering your ability to function online. Getting straight answers is often an exercise in futility; people’s direct points of contact are too far removed from the actual decision makers to reverse their decisions.
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“I can’t charge money [online] for people to see it. But I can put it in a museum.”
Even if you’re not doing business online, you could still feel the effects of this censorship. Facebook and Twitter rely on relationships with banks and credit card companies to run their affairs (for instance, collecting payments from advertisers). If these financial institutions chose to, they could refuse to process payments as long as certain content was allowed—and users whose posts were suddenly deemed in violation wouldn’t have any real recourse.
In the adult industry, content creators are forced to contend with a byzantine, multi-layered system of industry players. For many, their only direct contact is with the platforms they use. Last summer, for example, OnlyFans said it would be forced to ban porn, citing pressure from the financial industry, particularly JPMorgan Chase. It later reneged on that ban, but not before many creators had scrambled to find alternatives.
Is There a Better Way?
For people who’ve found themselves on the wrong side of a bank’s content standards, it’s clear that this system is fundamentally broken, which isn’t to say that it’s unfixable. One obvious solution is for credit card companies to adhere to the Santa Clara principles, which call for enhanced clarity about their content guidelines and a clear and straightforward appeals process for people who find themselves in a policy’s crosshairs.
McSherry thinks the Santa Clara principles don’t go far enough. “Companies that are essentially providing infrastructure really need to get out of the business of content moderation,” she says. “If they don’t have a court order requiring them to do something, they should stay out of the business altogether.”
Back in the early aughts, Vendetta was able to get her site online by turning to a European payment processor that took a whopping 27% commission on her sales. It turned out to be only a temporary solution, though. After cycling through a handful of other payment processors, she eventually gave up: BellaVendetta.com was too much trouble to keep going. These days, she sticks to less controversial content, shooting videos that can earn the approval of the payment processors working with sites like OnlyFans and Clips4Sale.
For Vendetta, there’s a certain irony to how things have ultimately turned out. The internet has long been marketed as a zone of ultimate freedom, yet in her experience, it’s the offline world that has been far more willing to support her work. The extreme content on which she made her name still gets showcased at film festivals, and it has even been exhibited at New York City’s Whitney Museum, but it no longer lives online.
“I can’t charge money [online] for people to see it,” she says. “But I can put it in a museum.”
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