MasterCard as censor
Governments have incredible powers to dictate what people buy online.
By virtue of being oligopolies, the two payments networks -- MasterCard and Visa -- exercise the same powers as governments do. If MasterCard bars your business from its network, you effectively don't exist.
We may not agree with how governments set rules about what things we can buy, but at least there is a somewhat transparent and democratic process -- however flawed -- behind the government's decisions. Visa and MasterCard's rulings, on the other hand, are opaque and driven by card executives, not voters. It is important to monitor these networks to see how they are exercising their powers of online censorship.
In this spirit, here are some thoughts on MasterCard's new rule change, AN 5196, which governs websites that provide adult content. Now, it could be that you don't particularly care about porn. But even then, it's worthwhile to pick through the rule change to see how the scope of online commerce is about to be narrowed. As I wrote in my recent article for the Sound Money Project, the sex industry exists at the edge of the payments universe and thus serves as a useful barometer for the general state of payments inclusion.
Issued earlier this year, AN 5196, or Revised Standards for New Specialty Merchant Registration Requirements for Adult Content Merchants, requires adult sites to obtain consent from all models who are depicted in a video or image. Sites must also verify the identity and age of all models. These systems must be in place by October 15, 2021. It is the job of acquirers, those companies that connect adult sites to the MasterCard network, to ensure that rules are being followed. Sites that don't comply will be disciplined or banned.
Here is how one site, JustForFans, is implementing the changes:
"We understand how scary this transition can be for our models..." JustForFans, a porn site, explains how MasterCard's new rules for adult content are being implemented: https://t.co/WV6QHoEmlx pic.twitter.com/gGxuJVroFJ— John Paul Koning (@jp_koning) September 24, 2021
In addition to collecting information, MasterCard will now require that content be reviewed by sites prior to publication to ensure that it is not illegal and that it does not "otherwise violate the Standards." If the content is a real-time stream, the site must be able monitor it and take it down immediately.
AN 5196 will also require porn sites to provide their acquirer with monthly reports including a list of all content flagged as "potentially illegal or otherwise in violation of the Standards," as well as the actions taken to address these violations.
Although MasterCard's actions are designed to reduce the amount of illegal adult content, it will also result in less legal adult content being available online.
Let's start by going through the justification for MasterCard's censoring of illegal content. This decision isn't entirely up to MasterCard, as I'm going to show.
Many nations have laws that prohibit various types of adult content. Child pornography is universally illegal. Revenge porn, or the posting of pornographic images of a partner without permission, is also prohibited in many jurisdictions, either explicitly via anti-revenge porn laws or through anti-privacy and/or anti-cyberharassment laws. Sex trafficking, which includes cases such as Girls Do Porn, (a company that used fraud and intimidation to recruit non-professionals to pose in porn videos) is also illegal. Obscenity is prohibited in many jurisdictions, too.
Society has generally gone one step further than punishing the people who are responsible for committing crime. To help further reduce crime, we also punish the financial institutions that facilitate these illegal transactions. If a bank knowingly provides services to a child pornography site, for instance, that bank may be held criminally liable for laundering money.
To avoid being punished for accepting the proceeds of crime, financial institutions make an effort to filter out illegal payments, say by implementing customer due diligence, or know-your-customer (KYC), requirements. By demonstrating to law enforcement that they have filters in place, bankers can avoid prosecution for money laundering.
It is courtesy of this filters that financial institutions like MasterCard help project society's laws about content, however imperfect, onto online commerce. MasterCard performs this role of censor because we (i.e. voters and politicians) have delegated it that role.
Which gets us back to AN 5196.
A 2020 exposé by the New York Times revealed that one of the world' biggest porn sites, PornHub, had allowed child sexual abuse material and other non-consensual videos to appear on its site. (I wrote about this event here.) Because card acquirers must ensure that the businesses they connect to the MasterCard network are not selling illegal content, Pornhub should never have been allowed to host this content in the first place.
MasterCard's response was AN 5196. Prior to the Pornhub incident, acquirers were obligated to stop illegal porn from being transacted on the MasterCard network, but they were allowed to devise their own methods for doing so. The new rules impose explicit and uniform procedures across all acquirers. (I've already described what they are above, including collecting identification.)
AN 5196 will almost certainly reduce the amount of illegal content being transacted along the MasterCard network, and thus the amount of illegal content available on the internet. Some illegal content will inevitably flow to alternative adult sites that use cryptocurrencies or eChecks for payments. But without the ease of a card transactions, this content won't attract the same number of eyeballs as before.
Unfortunately, AN 5196 has a blast radius. It will also reduce the amount of legal adult content available on the internet. Because adult sites will now have to collect the personal data of all people appearing in videos and other images, content makers who worry about being doxxed by insiders at porn site, or who fear losing their data to hackers who compromise sites, will stop providing content. (To be fair, some adult sites were already requiring identification prior to MasterCard's rule change.)
It might be possible to reduce the amount of law-abiding models who self-censor themselves out of fear of losing personal data. But this would require a different, more privacy friendly, approach to managing identity. That's a whole other conversation.
MasterCard's ban will also reduce the amount of legal but risqué/controversial material that is available online.
You'll notice that AN 5196 requires adult sites to preview all content not only for potentially illegality but also for violations of "the Standards."
What are MasterCard's standards?
In addition to prohibiting illegal material, MasterCard has long prohibited any transactions that may hurt its brand or "damage the goodwill of the Corporation." It provides a bit more clarity on this in 5.12.7 (2) of its rule book, where it declares the following activities to be in violation of its rules:
"The sale of a product or service, including an image, which is patently offensive and lacks serious artistic value (such as, by way of example and not limitation, images of nonconsensual sexual behavior, sexual exploitation of a minor, nonconsensual mutilation of a person or body part, and bestiality), or any other material that the Corporation deems unacceptable to sell in connection with a Mark."
I'm not entirely sure how MasterCard or its acquirers determine what is "unacceptable" or lacking "serious artistic value." Whatever the case, AN 5196 is likely to lead to an increase in brand-related censorship. The new set of rules requires that adult sites peruse each individual bit of content prior to publication. With sites applying more attention to content than ever before, this increases the likelihood of legal material being removed out of concern over MasterCard's reputation.
In addition, sites must now file monthly reports with their acquirers in which they list all content flagged as illegal or in violation of the Standards. The pressure to demonstrate that they are protecting MasterCard's brand will probably lead adult sites to apply harsher censoring standards than before.
If I may editorialize a bit, all businesses have the right to protect their brands. But MasterCard is an oligopoly, and thus necessary for online survival. And so it should be required to forfeit that right. That is, MasterCard shouldn't be allowed to police content for what it deems to be controversial material that could hurt its reputation. Governments have to provide services to every citizen, even ones who look funny or do strange things. The same should apply to MasterCard.
So to sum up, the scope of online commerce is about to be narrowed. AN 5196 will reduce the amount of content available online by: 1) reducing illegal adult content; 2) reducing legal adult content being produced by those preferring anonymity, and; 3) reducing legal content that is deemed to be brand-damaging.
As far as I know, this is the first time that a card network has forced a set of content providers to adopt a know-your-customer requirement. For now, MasterCard has limited this requirement to adult sites. But who knows, one day it may require other types of content providers (i.e. social media?) to adopt the same standards as porn. While there may be benefits to this sort of policy, let's not forget the costs.