Visa, Mastercard Cutting Off Pornhub Raises More Concerns Then it Solves

Visa and Mastercard have cut ties with Pornhub. While this is supposed to address concerns about exploitation, it also raises concerns as well.

There’s plenty of stories happening commanding attention. This is certainly another one. A New York Times column accused adult video sharing site, Pornhub, of hosting underage content. Pornhub, for their part, denies the allegations, saying that they screen content before it goes live.

Unfortunately for Pornhub, major credit cards including Visa and Mastercard have cut off the site altogether in response to the allegations. From the CBC:

Credit card companies MasterCard and Visa say they will no longer allow the cards to be used on Pornhub, a website owned by the Montreal-based company Mindgeek.

Pornhub came under fire last week after the New York Times reported that the website hosts videos of child sexual assaults and exploitations, prompting financial services companies Visa and MasterCard to investigate their relationship with the site.

MasterCard says its investigation found illegal material on the site, and had instructed its financial partners to stop accepting payments to Pornhub.

Visa says its investigation is ongoing, but it is suspending Pornhub’s acceptance privileges pending its completion.

Despite the Internet’s reputation of being all about the porn, it is actually quite hostile to handling such material in the first place. Many Terms of Service agreements explicitly forbid such content in the first place. Numerous hosting services do forbid webmasters from creating such sites with them. Conversely, many ad networks also cut off services seen as dealing too heavily in such material in the first place. PayPal has been known to crack down on such material as well.

So, already, options for administrators and producers to start such a service are already severely limited. In spite of that, companies like Mindgeek have been able to build up such services in the first place, leaving them to be one of the few dominant players in this space.

While the history of services like Pornhub isn’t exactly the cleanest (no pun intended), some of these services are seen by many as a way to consume and produce such material without the fear of viruses infecting their computers. Pornography is stereotypically associated with some of the most effective ways of infecting peoples computers with malware. If there are a few players that are seen as being a somewhat safe space, there is a net positive aspect that those that produce malware have fewer options to target random people’s computers.

Let’s face it: it’ll be naive to believe that pornography online will magically disappear under the extreme scenario of major sites like Pornhub going by the wayside. There will always be people to produce it and people who want to consume it. The question is, would we rather have a clean space for such content or should we go back to the days where people risked malware to consume such content in the first place? If not a site like Pornhub, then what?

This perspective, of course, does not delve into the initial allegations in the first place. We really don’t know enough to really make a judgement on that front.

While there are security concerns about all of this, others are voicing concerns surrounding free speech. The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) is raising questions about whether or not Visa and Mastercard has a right to dictate what you can and cannot see online. From the EFF:

Sexual exploitation is a scourge on society that needs resources, education, victim support, and, when necessary, prosecution by responsible authorities to address. Visa and Mastercard are the wrong entities for addressing these problems. Visa and Mastercard do not have the skills, expertise, or position to determine complex issues of digital speech. Nuanced challenges to what content should exist online, and whether moderation policies will inadvertently punish otherwise marginalized voices, are issues that legal experts, human rights experts, lawmakers, and courts in the United States and abroad have been deeply considering for years. The truth is, navigating speech policies in a way that won’t shut down huge swaths of legitimate and worthy speech is hard. And it’s wrong that Visa and Mastercard have the power to—however clumsily—police speech online.

More importantly, as a society, we haven’t given Visa and Mastercard the authority to decide online speech cases. Those companies haven’t been elected or chosen by any electorate in any country. They are here enforcing speech rules that we haven’t adopted in the United States—and, frankly, which would likely violate the U.S. Constitution if they were adopted. And sadly this is not the first time these companies’ decisions have jeopardized speech online.

Visa and Mastercard, acting together, are currently a chokepoint for online payments. This means that every arbitrary policy of these two companies can translate into rules that all websites who want to process payments must follow. Until and unless we create a diverse and robust market of online payment services not reliant on Visa and Mastercard, we have to deal with the fact that these two companies can dictate what you can read online—or, in this case, what porn you’re allowed to watch.

This isn’t a debate over whether Pornhub is predatory. This is a question about what level of censorship power we want to give to payment processors. Ironically, until now some of the most powerful critics of Pornhub’s policies have been the sex workers who also struggle daily with the credit card companies’ rejection of their sites. These companies’ power may be seen as a way to keep Pornhub to account today: but every other day, they are used to remove the financial freedom of independent sex workers, Pornhub’s competitors and potential alternatives to their near-monopoly power.

This isn’t exactly a new debate in the pornography industry, it is a very high profile one. As a result, this problem is certainly receiving more attention than ever before.

While it’s cold comfort, there is a small silver lining in all of this. Cryptocurrencies might see this as an opportunity. If this decision holds, currencies like Bitcoin might be the only way to make transactions on such sites in the first place. The question is whether or not people would be willing to trade their cards for digital wallets. It really depends on how well this all plays out.

At any rate, there are plenty of valid questions to raise about this case. It’s likely troubling for many to see just how much power payment processors wield on content producers in the first place.

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Facebook.

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