In the face of negative attention and public outcry, OnlyFans, the U.K.-based subscription-only social media platform, suspended its plans to prohibit sexually explicit content from its platforms less than a week after announcing the change. The attempt to outlaw sexually explicit content infuriated thousands and led to an avalanche of backlash among content creators and civil society.
While Access Now applauds the decision, we encourage OnlyFans to drop the plan completely, because it would disproportionately harm sex workers and stifle freedom of expression online.
“This is welcome news, but OnlyFans’ problems aren’t going to just go away. Freedom of expression is a fundamental human right, and a community’s ability to sustain itself, make money, and stay safe shouldn’t be at the hands of payment providers and tech companies,” said Willmary Escoto, U.S. Policy Analyst at Access Now. “Banks leverage their power over platforms to censor lawful speech by pushing for policies that stigmatize the adult industry and limit workers’ access to online services. The harm almost always falls disproportionately onto Black, Brown, and trans communities. Banning sex work on OnlyFans would not make anyone safer. It would further eliminate safer online spaces for sex workers.”
Accepting and receiving payments online through financial intermediaries like PayPal and Venmo is critical to engaging in today’s online world. The problem is, just like social media, payment processors have accumulated too much authority over our online lives. The payment industry’s influence over the internet goes back over a decade, with companies like Visa, PayPal, Mastercard, and Venmo enforcing policies that censor what we see and read online. This has threatened the ability of tech platforms like OnlyFans to ensure their content moderation practices fully respect human rights.
We don’t know the full story about why OnlyFans decided to make this policy change now. Aside from mounting pressure from the company’s banking partners, a recent BBC investigation, published after OnlyFans announced it would ban most sexually explicit material, claimed the company wasn’t doing enough to make sure that the content posted was legal or that its creators are of legal age. The report also indicated that the company is slow to ban creators found to violate its policies.
There is no silver bullet to solving complex content moderation problems. The fallout of FOSTA-SESTA, a U.S. bill aimed at curbing sex trafficking, illustrates the grave consequences of overly broad content moderation policies and their impact on vulnerable communities. FOSTA-SESTA has led to widespread removal of online speech and made it more difficult to find and help those trafficked online.
The OnlyFans flip-flop on sexually explicit content highlights the dangers of financial censorship and its impacts on vulnerable groups. We hope it signals a drastic shift in the influence financial institutions have over tech platforms and their content moderation regimes.