How Mastercard’s new rules will affect adult content industry, sex workers

In a new policy to prevent child sexual abuse and uploading of non-consensual content, Mastercard has instructed collaborating banks to ensure that creators of adult content and platforms streaming it follow a strict documentation and moderation process

Representative photo: iStock

Mastercard’s new regulations for platforms offering adult content, which came into force October 15, has sparked a row with sex workers, adult content creators and platforms hosting them accusing it infringing on their right to speech and trying to rob them of their livelihood.

While Mastercard argues that the new policy would help in preventing child sexual abuse and the uploading of other non-consensual content, adult content creators and activists say the rules will not only hit the livelihood of sex workers, but are also impractical in nature.

What are the new regulations?

The payments and technology company in April this year via a blog post announced that under its new “speciality merchant” regulations creators of adult content and platforms streaming it will be required to follow a strict documentation and moderation process.


In the blog post, Mastercard’s senior vice-president of customer engagement and performance John Verdeschi said that considering the “high risk” nature of the adult content industry, it was imperative to keep “strong content control measures and clear, unambiguous and documented consent” in place.

“You might ask, ‘Why now?’ In the past few years, the ability to upload content to the internet has become easier than ever. All someone needs is a smartphone and a Wi-Fi connection,” he had argued, defending his company’s new policy.

Under the new regulations, banks that connect merchants to Mastercard’s network will be required to certify that the seller of adult content has effective controls in place to monitor, block and, where necessary, take down an illegal content.

Banks will also have to ensure that the adult websites document the age and verify the identity of people in uploaded photographs and videos as well as that of the content uploader.

In simple words, content creators including sex workers, uploaders and the uploading platform would only be able to avail the services of Mastercard if they have proper documentation about their consent to be in the film, cam show or picture, to have them distributed and have them available for download.

Also read: What the RBI ban on Mastercard means for the future

Mastercard also wants banks working with it to ensure that platform moderators review the content before publishing it and have in place a “complaint resolution process that addresses illegal or nonconsensual content within seven business days”.

The banks should also see to it that platforms remove adult photo and videos if a person featured in it raises objection.

Reason behind the regulation

The regulations come in the wake of Mastercard, Visa and Discover blocking the use of their cards to access Pornhub last year, following allegation of sex trafficking-related content (including child abuse and rape) being streamed on the platform.

Replying to the ban, Pornhub in a statement called it “exceptionally disgusting”, especially when the website just recently had announced steps to “protect images of abuse, non-consensual activity and underage models on the site, including a ban on unverified users uploading material”.

Despite its wariness about “unlawful activities” related to sexual content on its network, Mastercard ironically is a branded card for Cabelas, a brand selling assault weapons.

Sex workers cry foul

Sex workers and activists have decried the new regulations by Mastercard and have been demanding the company for a rollback.

Activists say the new policy is an “attack on free speech” and would make it immensely difficult for sex workers to eke out a living from online platforms.

In a commentary in American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), trans justice campaign manager Lala B Holston-Zannell wrote that the policy “makes it harder for sex workers to do business online and makes sex workers more vulnerable, especially those who are trans women of colour”.

She says, when seen practically, the new requirement is quite tardy to follow, if not impossible. Giving the example of social networking platform OnlyFans, she said the website has one million content creators. So, if each of them uploaded one video a day, under Mastercard’s new policy, the website would have to review each video before publishing it.

“Pre-publication review at that scale is almost impossible, and would likely be rife with errors considering the speed at which online platforms operate. This policy will make it much harder for platforms to host adult content, which will destabilize the websites that sex workers use to make a living,” she writes.

To raise their objection against the policy, around 1,500 sex workers, sex educators and other stakeholders in September signed a letter to Mastercard demanding a withdrawal of the rules.

“Payment processors should not be dictating platforms’ content moderation policies. Mastercard’s proposal will lead to more violence and discrimination against vulnerable people, not less,” said Evan Greer, director of Fight for the Future in a statement.

“If they move ahead with this proposal and refuse to even pause to listen to more stakeholders, they are in fact saying that acceptance doesn’t matter to them. They’re throwing LGBTQ+ communities, human rights and marginalized people under the bus. Full stop,” Greer said in the statement.

Not only queer sex workers, Greer said the new policy would also affect all queer content creators including comic artists, game developers, sex educators and academics.

“All of society suffers from restrictions on consensual sexuality and speech, increases in surveillance, and misdirection of resources that should help the most vulnerable,” Greer said.

Stating that everyone deserves to access financial services, Holston-Zannell said financial discrimination and laws that stigmatise or criminalise sex work will not only harm the safety and wellbeing of Black transwomen, but also expose them to the dangers of mass incarceration, racist policing as well put curbs on their free speech and invade their privacy.

“If Mastercard is a true supporter of LGBTQ rights, as it claims on its Pride page, it should immediately reverse this discriminatory policy,” she said.

Calling the policy, a “war” on sex workers, Sex Workers Outreach Project Behind Bars has said that the regulations would put a lot of sex workers out of work and maginalise them further.

“We say ‘war against sex workers’ because the damage they do does not impact the labour as much as it affects the labourers who depend on the Pornhub platform to earn a living,” the platform stated.

“Violence against sex workers includes the societal and institutional violence that has led to the shuttering of our online platforms that give us a measure of safety and allow us the critical resource that is the ability to access banking,” the platform said.

Sex workers say these policies do more harm than good.

“By forcing me to fill out a consent ‘contract’ or upload an ID that protects producers, platforms, and banks from liability, I would have a harder time winning a case against an abusive producer. Sex workers themselves are rarely involved in legal or civil liability for trafficking, child sexual abuse, or other problematic content. I only see this surveillance and these policies as further exploitation not help; they make me less safe,” a sex worker told Vice.

Ironically while, a chunk of adult platforms have stringent moderation and content documentation policies, non-adult social medium platforms like Facebook and Instagram often stream adult and abusive content which, and never get pulled up for it. According to an annual report by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children Facebook reported 20 billion instances of child sex abuse in 2020, while the same reported on Snapchat platform was 144,000. Twitter reported more than 65,000 instances of child sex abuse while Microsoft reported 96,776 instances.

Also read: Card declined: Behind India’s decision to ban Mastercard

This, however, is not the first instance where sex workers faced financial discrimination. Payment processors like PayPal have refused to do business with sex workers due to the “high risk” nature of their work.

Many adult sites have already drafted new rules in line with Mastercard’s regulations and alerted users about the same. Porn site iWantClips, for instance, recently intimated its creators about the change in content review policies, warning them that non-compliance may lead to the blacklisting of erring creators.

However, some websites, after complying with Mastercard’s rules, have reversed them following huge outcry by users.  For instance, Onlyfans in August announced that it will ban explicit content from its platform from October. The platform, however, had to roll back its decision after users protested against it. Onlyfans’ founder Tim Stokely, however, has said that the website was already complying with Mastercard’s rules and that they had nothing to do with the ban.