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Pornhub, OnlyFans, and How Financial Institutions Are Aiming to Curb Sex Trafficking Online

November 16, 2021    read

Originally published in The American Spectator, November 16, 2021

inancial institutions have an essential role in preventing online sex trafficking, including the monetization of filmed underage sexual abuse, which is rampant on mainstream websites. Last year, Pornhub, the world’s most popular porn site with 47 billion visits per year and enough content that it would take 169 years to watch the videos uploaded in a single year, was globally exposed and condemned for enabling and profiting from mass sexual crime, including child rape and abuse, sex trafficking, and a spectrum of illegal image-based sexual abuse.

In December of 2020, an explosive New York Times investigation revealed Pornhub as a site “infested” with the filmed criminal sexual abuse of victims. The spotlight for enabling this mega-sex trafficking operation was placed on the credit card companies whose services allow exploitation to remain profitable. Within days of the damning exposé, Mastercard confirmedthe presence of illegal content on the site, including child pornography, and was the first to cut ties with Pornhub. Visa and Discover quickly followed suit. PayPal had already stopped doing business with the site in late 2019 after a Sunday Times investigation revealed dozens of illegal videos found on the site within minutes, some featuring children as young as 3 years old.

These moves by credit card companies to disengage with Pornhub and its parent company MindGeek were not done solely out of benevolence, but also self-protection. According to the U.S. Trafficking Victims Protection Act, a company that knowingly benefits from a sex trafficking venture is liable to be sued. In the case of Visa, removing its services from Pornhub in 2020 was too little, too late. The company was aware of sex trafficking and child exploitation on the site long before the New York Times exposé, yet chose to continue doing business with the company anyway. Because of this, Visa was named as a defendant in a massive landmark case filed by attorneys Michael Bowe and Lauren Tabaksblat of the New York firm Brown Rudnick against Pornhub on behalf of 34 women, 14 of whom were children when they were exploited for profit on the site. 

Big Porn sites like Pornhub have been operating for far too long with little scrutiny or oversight, enabling them to get away with distributing user-generated filmed sex acts on a massive scale without even the simplest of measures in place to prevent criminal abuse. Until December of 2020, all it took to upload to Pornhub was an email address. Anonymously, in minutes, anyone around the world could upload content to the site with no verification to ensure the individual in the video was not a child or a rape victim. This is clearly an unacceptable practice for a company that profits from distributing and monetizing filmed sex acts. But Pornhub is not alone. Most user-generated pornography sites operate in the same reckless and negligent manner. 

The situation with Pornhub has put banks and credit card companies on high alert. Financial services actors are realizing the serious liability risk they face in continuing to do business with websites that have been exposed for generating profits from criminal sex acts that amount to trafficking. They are now taking measures to implement policies and regulations to prevent further abuse and mitigate their own liability — as they should.

In response to becoming aware of the great risks associated with doing business with Big Porn sites that do not verify the age or consent of those in the millions of videos they profit from, Mastercard recently implemented a new protective global policy that disallows the use of their card on all user-generated pornography websites unless a site engages in rigorous moderation of videos and images before upload along with age and unambiguous consent verification for every person shown. These are, of course, common-sense preventative measures that all pornography websites should have implemented from the moment they went live. These new policies are set to take effect October 15.

OnlyFans, a user-generated content subscription site earning $2 billion per year with millions of users, is one of the world’s most well-known pornography distributors. The company shocked the public when it suddenly announced it would be dropping all pornographic content on October 1 before quickly reversing course following backlash for the decision. With the pending deadline of October 15 to implement Mastercard’s required safety measures, anyone can see the timing is no coincidence.

One has to assume that OnlyFans decided it was too costly to comply with the new safety measures implemented by the financial institutions it relies on for income. It is telling that the first reaction of the executives making millions off the site was to rid the entire site of pornography rather than implement stringent protective measures required by the credit card companies and banks. 

Perhaps the issues these executives needed to resolve ran deeper than they believed could be remedied in the specified time frame. You see, OnlyFans was recently exposed by the BBC in multiple published investigations that revealed underage exploitation on the site, illegal content, and bad faith moderation practices. In recent weeks, over 100 members of Congress from both the Democratic and Republican parties called on the Department of Justice to investigate the site, and sources say there is currently an FBI investigation underway.

With OnlyFans’ decision to continue to distribute and monetize pornographic content, we will now have to see if and how it cleans up its act to comply with the banks and card companies’ new safety regulations, and whether it comes out of this debacle unscathed. We also have yet to see whether they end up facing civil and criminal accountability from victims who have already been harmed. The future of OnlyFans is still to be determined.


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