Update (8/26/21): Victory! OnlyFans has reversed course and suspended its plans to ban sexually explicit content, saying it has “secured assurances necessary” from banking partners and payout providers to enable it to continue to serve all creators. We hope that financial institutions will take note that it is unacceptable to censor constitutionally protected legal speech by threatening to shut down access to financial services. EFF continues to actively fight financial censorship.
OnlyFans recently announced it would ban sexually explicit content, citing pressure from “banking partners and payout providers.” This is the latest example of a troubling pattern of financial intermediaries censoring constitutionally protected legal speech by shutting down accounts—or threatening to do so.
OnlyFans is a subscription site that allows artists, performers and other content creators to monetize their creative works—and it has become a go-to platform for independent creators of adult content. The ban on sexually explicit content has been met by an outcry from many creators who have used the platform to safely earn an income in the adult industry.
This is just the latest example of censorship by financial intermediaries. Intermediaries have cut off access to financial services for independent booksellers, social networks, adult video websites, and whistleblower websites, regardless of whether those targeted were trading in First Amendment-protected speech. By cutting off these critical services, financial intermediaries force businesses to adhere to their moral and political standards.
It is not surprising that, faced with the choice of losing access to financial services or banning explicit content, OnlyFans would choose its payment processors over its users. For many businesses, losing access to financial services seriously disrupts operations and may have existential consequences.
As EFF has explained, access to the financial system is a necessary precondition for the operations of nearly every Internet intermediary, including content hosts and platforms. The structure of the electronic payment economy makes these payment systems a natural chokepoint for controlling online content. Indeed, in one case, a federal appeals court analogized shutting down financial services for a business to “killing a person by cutting off his oxygen supply.” In that case, Backpage.com, LLC v. Dart, the Seventh Circuit found that a sheriff had violated the First Amendment by strongly encouraging payment processors to cut off financial services to a classified advertising website.
There has been some movement in Washington to fight financial censorship. Earlier this year, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency finalized its Fair Access to Financial Services rule, which would have prevented banks from refusing to serve entire classes of customers they find politically or morally unsavory. But the rule was put on hold with the change of administrations in January.
Content moderation is a complex topic, and EFF has written about the implications of censorship by companies closer to the bottom of the technical stack. But content creators should not lose their financial lifelines based on the whims and moral standards of a few dominant and unaccountable financial institutions.