Pornhub announced that it would be removing millions of user-uploaded videos. The move came after Mastercard and Visa announced that their cards would be blocked from making purchases on the site. This was in response to a New York Times (NYT) column accusing Pornhub of hosting sexual videos of underage and nonconsenting women.
This move left cryptocurrencies as the only way for Pornhub to process payments.
The knee-jerk reaction to this, including my own, was to see it as a move in the right direction by Visa and Mastercard. After all, for years the corporation has profited from the publication and distribution of sexual abuse material, non-consensual videos, and pirated content. But of course, the satisfaction was short-lived.
Despite years of pressure from women and activist groups, Mindgeek, Pornhub’s shadowy parent company, only acted in response to having their money cut by the duopolistic payment processors. Thus, on second thought, it is completely unacceptable that Mastercard and Visa have been given the authority to be an arbitrator of what should be online or not.
Arbitrators of what should be online
Given that the very same issues raised in the recent NYT column existed and have been well documented for some time, why is it that profit maximizing corporations like Mastercard and Visa only choose to force Pornhub’s hand now and not before?
Their actions expose their complicity in the model.
According to Pornhub’s insights: “In 2019 there were over 42 Billion visits to Pornhub, which means there was an average of 115 million visits per day."
In other words, Pornhub is “the world's biggest porn site."
A corporation that has a monopoly on commercial pornography only responding to corporations that are themselves a dominant force is a threat. As we have seen on many other platforms, this more often than not harms already marginalized communities, even more, reducing the democratizing potential of the internet. Like when #ThotAudit, a harassment campaign targeting sex workers, caused sex workers to lose their earnings by getting Paypal to shut down their accounts - an attempt to control who can make money online.
It is not the first time Mastercard and Visa have attempted to act as arbitrators of what should be online.
In 2010, the payment processors cut donations to WikiLeaks - it is believed due to political pressure from the US - a move that was eventually overturned by the court. More recently FetLife, an adult social network, became victims of the payment processors because it allows for discussion of BDSM practices. Apart from that, they have been accused in the UK of abusing their dominance in other ways too, as Australia weighs options to regulate, owing to a recognition that new technologies are having an impact on the payment system.
Vigilance is required
Over the last few years, the dangers of the power held by Big Tech have been under scrutiny. There have been revelations of how Facebook deliberately undermined rivals to grow its dominance. However, Big Tech companies are not the only ones that should be subjected to scrutiny. The duopolistic Mastercard and Visa hegemony, which gives them a lot of power, poses a huge threat to the internet.
In the same way, it is understood that the business models of the tech corporations should be regulated to address their power, the same should be done for industries which although are not always obvious players in the space amass enough power to influence it. It requires regulation of the whole payment processing industry and infrastructure, a sector that's importance was underscored by the move online during the COVID-19 related lockdowns.
While the changes made by Pornhub are welcome, it also highlights the power of Visa and Mastercard. There is a great need to vigilantly guard against corporations like them from becoming the overlords of the internet, leaving us at the mercy of those whose only intention is to profit and the whims of those whose agendas they drive.
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