As huge financial intermediaries increasingly censor online content providers, decentralized technologies de-censor them. It’s not always clear which side to cheer for.

Allie Eve Knox, a sex worker who specializes in financial-related fetishes, woke up on Oct. 15 to find that of the thousand or so videos that she has uploaded to iWantClips, a site that allows models to sell adult-oriented content, only a dozen were available for sale. A week later, only a handful of others have been made accessible.

J.P. Koning, a CoinDesk columnist, worked as an equity researcher at a Canadian brokerage firm and a financial writer at a large Canadian bank. He runs the popular Moneyness blog.

The reason for the hold-up? iWantClips must now review every single video uploaded to its site. The new policy comes courtesy of Mastercard, which in the name of “protecting its network” now requires sites that host porn to preview material for illegal and brand-damaging content. Sites that do not comply will be expelled from the Mastercard network. (For those keeping track, this marks the first time that one of the card networks has imposed moderation requirements on a particular set of internet content providers.)

The challenges faced by streaming sites such as Chaturbate and MyFreeCams are even more daunting. Mastercard now requires them to monitor content in real-time.

In addition, Mastercard also intends to screen-out all anonymous adult content. Its new rules require adult sites to prove to Mastercard they are verifying the identities and ages of every model and co-model.

There is a double-edged nature to Mastercard’s push to protect its network. Censoring content has its merits. It prevents child pornographers and other creators of non-consensual porn from monetizing the material they create.

But Mastercard’s rules have also thrown the financial lives of legitimate sex workers such as Knox into disarray. Overwhelmed by the extra hassles and compliance burden, many of them will stop producing content. Co-models who help make legal material but are uncomfortable with the idea of a clip or cam site storing their personal information may drop out, too.

The volume of kinkier material will shrink as well. BDSM and other fetishes, though legal, will inevitably get flagged as brand-damaging by MasterCard’s beefed-up filters, thus disappearing from the vast credit card-enabled internet.

In its initial announcement of the new rules, Mastercard said it wanted to make the internet a safer place. Without access to the Mastercard economy, however, some models may end up migrating to unsafer alternatives, like in-person, cash-based sex work.

In other words, by censoring the bad, Mastercard also reduces the good, even if that is not the company’s intention.

When it comes to strictly controlling their networks, the card companies don’t have much of a choice. It is a felony to launder money. That is, to knowingly facilitate payments for illegal goods and services such child porn is itself illegal. If financial institutions like Mastercard want to avoid prosecution, they must make a bona fide effort to filter out illegal activity. And so it is imposing content moderation on adult sites.

Read more: Michael J. Casey: OnlyFans and the Threat to Free Speech

Some have complained of a double standard. Why is Mastercard requiring content moderation and universal ID requirements from porn sites but not other online content providers? After all, Facebook or YouTube both host their share of illegal content. If Mastercard sees content moderation and ID as necessary for purging its network free of unlawful payments, surely it should impose the same on these sites, too.

Bitcoin fixes this, members of the cryptocurrency community like to say. For every content provider who is censored by Mastercard, crypto can reconnect them.

And there have been some efforts to do so. In response to Mastercard’s new rules, PocketStars – an adult subscription site founded by adult star Elle Brooke – introduced a new Mastercard-resistant sub-platform called Rocketstars. Rocketstars relies entirely on crypto for payments, which saves it from having to abide by Mastercard’s standards.

Kinky material such as ABDL (Adult Baby/Diaper Lovers) and “watersports,” which probably would not have survived on PocketStars thanks to Mastercard’s stricter moderation requirements, has found a home on RocketStars. While ABDL isn’t for everyone, it is legal content produced and consumed by consenting adults.

RocketStars initially relied on MakerDAO’s dai stablecoin for payments, which uses the Ethereum blockchain. Whereas many cryptocurrencies are highly volatile, a stablecoin is pegged to a fiat currency, usually the U.S. dollar. Ethereum’s high fees were problematic, though, and last week RocketStars introduced its own native cryptocurrency, SIMP, implemented on Binance Smart Chain.

Unfortunately, asking sex workers and their customers to transact with a wildly fluctuating token like SIMP can only make for a bad user experience. A low-fee stablecoin might have been a better choice for RocketStars. Even with a stablecoin it’s hard to replace the ubiquity of the credit card.

If Mastercard censorship is a double-edged sword, crypto’s ability to uncensor also cuts both ways.

The same week that Mastercard’s new rules paralyzed iWantClips, I stumbled on DeepSukebe, a website that lets people submit fully clothed photos of women and girls and, without their consent, “nudifies” these photos using artificial intelligence. Fake nudes in hand, bad actors can blackmail and harass their innocent targets. According to a recent article in the Huffington Post by Jesselyn Cook, DeepSukebe has received millions of hits since debuting in October 2020.

DeepSukebe can’t accept credit cards. “Our project have [sic] a lot of risks that ordinary project do not need to care about,” the site administrators say. Citing the potential for deplatforming, they are “determined not to rely traditional payment system or any other platformers [sic].”

And so DeepSukebe has turned to cryptocurrency to monetize its content.

Because bitcoin and ethereum have caused “a lot of troubles” due to high transaction fees, DeepSukebe relies on bitcoin cash and litecoin. Coinbase Commerce, a tool that crypto-giant Coinbase offers to businesses so that they can easily accept crypto, processes DeepSukebe’s payments. However, Coinbase’s terms of service prohibits usage that is “illegal, obscene, defamatory, threatening, intimidating, harassing.”

Read more: JP Koning – Are Central Bankers Ready for Payments Theater?

I contacted Coinbase to find out if DeepSukebe’s usage of Coinbase Commerce violates its terms of service. A Coinbase spokesperson responded, “While Coinbase does not discuss individual cases, we will take appropriate action when it finds customers and partners violating its terms of service and breaking the law.” Not long after DeepSukebe’s payments server went down, suggesting that Coinbase had cut it off.

Without Coinbase Commerce, DeepSukebe will still be able to find ways to accept cryptocurrency, albeit via less convenient means. It can spin up its own bitcoin address or turn to a non-intermediated service like BTCPay Server.

All of this illustrates the dark side of crypto’s ability to cancel censorship. Even though cryptocurrency can help re-platform legal kink censored by Mastercard, it also gets some pretty awful content back into circulation, including the very stuff that many of us applaud centralized payments Mastercard and Coinbase Commerce for cutting off, like DeepSukebe’s fakes.

Crypto’s radical openness and Mastercard’s content moderation both have supporters. But in the end, none of this is as clear cut or obvious as either side makes it seem. The best we can hope for is that the censors do a good job. That means carefully limiting censorship to those who genuinely deserve it. It also means ensuring that innocent victims such as Allie Eve Knox are not caught up in the blast radius of bureaucratic red tape.

And if crypto reconnects those that Mastercard edits out, the best that we can hope is that for every awful DeepSukebe that benefits there is a deserving ABDL star who is also made better off.



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