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Why is OnlyFans letting financial companies lure it away from porn?

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Reuters
OnlyFans is moving away from porn.
  • Scott Nover
By Scott Nover

Emerging tech reporter

Published Last updated on

OnlyFans has brought in billions of dollars distributing pornography. The website, which allowed sex workers to enter the so-called creator economy with its popular direct-to-consumer subscription platform, did $2 billion in sales in 2020 and took a 20% cut of the action, according to Bloomberg, which first reported the news of the pivot away from porn.

Now OnlyFans plans to ban all videos featuring  “sexually explicit conduct” starting Oct. 1. While the definition of sexually explicit content is still undefined (the company says some nude photos and videos will be allowed), hardcore porn on the platform seems unlikely to survive the new policy.  It’s unclear if the new policy will make illegal content, such as child pornography, any easier to eliminate.

But the decision to remove OnlyFan’s most popular product was not a result of legal pressure, according to the company. The decision was made in order “to comply with the requests of our banking partners and payout providers,” an OnlyFans spokesperson wrote by email.

The change marks a growing trend where financial services firms such as credit card and payment processors effectively decide what content is allowed or prohibited on internet platforms. For creators who depend on internet platforms for their income, especially adult performers, the sudden change represents a cautionary tale as the gatekeepers of the creator economy take shape.

Backpage and Pornhub fell first

Last year, Visa and Mastercard cut ties with PornHub, the online porn giant, over allegations detailed by The New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof that it didn’t aptly stop the spread of videos showing child abuse and non-consensual sex. PayPal had cut the site off the year before. After credit card companies cut ties, the service turned to cryptocurrencies for transactions. Today, PornHub users can only pay for exclusive content (similar to OnlyFans) with a direct bank account transaction or via cryptocurrency handled by the company Cosmo Payment. Something similar happened to Backpage, an online classified ad business popular with sex workers, which was cut off by credit card companies like Visa and Mastercard in 2015 before being shut down by US authorities in 2018.

Adult performers claimed decisions like these don’t help abuse victims and further ostracize sex workers looking for legitimate platforms to make money. Alana Evans, president of the Adult Performers Actors Guild (APAG) wrote on Aug. 20 that one of the “real reasons” that OnlyFans changed its tune was pressure from credit card company Mastercard. In the past, Digital rights activists like the Electronic Frontier Foundation have claimed that payment companies are trying to police speech online, while the American Civil Liberties Union has criticized PayPal and Venmo’s ban on sex work for endangering already vulnerable populations.

OnlyFans now faces similar allegations to those leveled against PornHub: A recent BBC investigation showed that OnlyFans gave repeated warnings to creators who posted illegal content, but did not ban them on the first offense. So far, Visa, Mastercard, and other credit card companies, as well as the online payment processor Stripe, which powers other creator platforms like Substack, have maintained ties with OnlyFans.

But it was clear change was coming.

Mastercard announced a new policy directed at adult content due to take effect on October 15. Under the new rules, adult sites taking Mastercard payments will need to prove the age and identity of anyone uploading or depicted in adult content, conduct a pre-publication content review process, and offer a robust complaint resolution and appeals process. “The ability to upload content to the internet has become easier than ever,” the company stated in its announcement this April. “Now, our requirements address the risks associated with this activity. And that starts with strong content control measures and clear, unambiguous and documented consent.”

A Mastercard spokesperson said the company did not directly pressure OnlyFans to change policy and only found out about the decision through media coverage. “It’s a decision they came to themselves,” said Seth Eisen, a communications executive for Mastercard. Visa and Discover, which are also payment partners of OnlyFans, did not respond to a request for comment. Stripe, which OnlyFans uses for payments to creators for non-adult content, as Stripe explicitly bans pornography or other “obscene” content, declined to comment.

OnlyFans later clarified that it would have been in compliance with the new Mastercard policies and instead blamed the banks for putting up unnecessary obstacles. OnlyFans CEO Tim Stokely told the Financial Times that he would “absolutely” welcome porn back if banking policies changed. On OnlyFans, creators upload videos of themselves or others, and users can subscribe to creators’ pages with access to exclusive content for a fee (though some accounts are free).

Now the porn industry’s role in the creator economy, which promised individual internet users can make a living by selling content directly to their fans, is in jeopardy. OnlyFans briefly removed adult performers’ reliance on the industry’s gatekeepers, but instead exposed their reliance on internet platforms and financial services companies.

This story was updated on Tuesday to clarify that Mastercard’s new policies were not the reason for OnlyFans’ decision, according to the company. 

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