The internet is no longer a safe place to be an adult. Puritans and authoritarians are closing in from all directions: state censorship, financial censorship and corporate censorship. This sounds like paranoia, but it isn’t. Here’s why. (Oh, and sorry for the ghastly Upworthy headline, I couldn’t resist).
1) State Censorship
The UK has censored depictions of acts which are legal to perform- like BDSM, spanking, face-sitting. See blog posts passim.
Australia has even more draconian restrictions.
The USA has protected speech, so did it by the back door: 18 USC 2257 imposed very onerous record keeping requirements on producers. For example if a model you shot in 2001 pops up again in 2014 with a different stage name, in theory you could go to prison if you don’t update your records on her accordingly. Even if you don’t work with her and don’t know she’s resumed her career. And the feds can come knocking any time they want, and you have to have you record keeping address on the site.
I remember a lot of single-model sites closing down because they didn’t want to publish their real names and addresses, naturally enough. These days it has settled down, with lawyers acting as keepers of records, but mainly because the current democrat government has had other priorities than closing down porn. Just wait until a censorious person gets in as attorney general again.
Other governments world wide have woken up to the potential of the internet. The potential for people to bypass old (state-censored) media. And they don’t like it- witness the use of, and censorship of, the Internet and Twitter during the “Arab Spring”.
Now that so many of us are online, they have also woken up to the fact that they can keep tabs on people by spying on the internet en masse.
Clearly there is a balance to be struck between using the internet to catch people committing serious crime and allowing the rest of us privacy and freedom of expression online. Personally I think the presumption should be innocent until proven guilty, and that enforcement agencies should be made to justify each case with judicial oversight. I think we need a public debate over where these boundaries should be set, and that’s something we’ve not had to date.
What actually happens is that the decisions are made out of public gaze by bureaucrats with a job to do. That job may be intelligence gathering, law enforcement, or classification and censorship of films. The problem is that the parameters for how they are allowed to operate have not been set following mass public consultations and long debates in Parliament. They have been set by the people at the coalface, doing the job. Is it any wonder that they are erring on the side of making their jobs easier, and grabbing everything they think might be useful to them? That they have the technical capability to do something doesn’t mean it is healthy for our society to allow them everything they’d like.
I’d ask even the most determined “won’t someone think of the children?” brigade to step back a moment and consider the chilling effects. Their children will grow up soon enough- don’t you owe it to them to ensure that when they are adults, they enjoy freedom of speech, freedom from unwarranted intrusions into their privacy, and the right to be themselves online?
Because make no mistake, being yourself online is exactly what is at stake here.
2) Financial Censorship
I’ve been in the website business for nearly 14 years. I remember the feeling of freedom, the Wild West spirit of 2001. Back then, you could use Paypal to join erotic websites. They had a service specifically for that. Many webmasters used it, many more customers did too.
Then the axe fell. One day, Paypal changed their minds. All the professional accounts of webmasters- who had been making a neat amount of money for themselves and for Paypal- got blocked. Not only that, but in many cases Paypal kept hold of the balances in the accounts, too. Pretty shitty if you happened to have the money to keep your business running in there. Most people eventually got the money out of Paypal- but by then the damage was done. This was the first wave of website closures I can remember.
My business Paypal account remains blocked to this day.
Ariel opened a business one too a while ago. We accepted a few payments that way for custom videos, because we thought that was OK by their terms and conditions and people like paying that way. Guess what? Account got frozen, lots of intrusive questions from Paypal, eventually the money was released but still- lesson learned. Don’t use Paypal for business, especially not if you want to be an adult online.
Google makes its money through advertising, and the primary form of advertising it uses is Adwords, those “sponsored links” that pop up when you Google something. Advertisers pay Google when you click on of those links. Advertisers like it because it lets you target people who might be interested in your specific project.
Google was entirely happy for erotic websites to use adwords and pay them money. I did so for many years. Just a hundred pounds a month or so- but enough to get the Restrained Elegance brand name in front of the eyes of people searching for “bondage porn”. I reached hundreds of thousands of people that way. Sure, not all that many of them signed up. But some did, and it was a good way of attracting new people who’d not heard of us before.
Then the axe fell. One day I got an email from Google telling me they were no longer happy to accept my advertising money. At a stroke, the primary online form of advertising was denied to adult producers.
Oh, and Google refuses to push pirate sites down their search rankings, even back when we were all paying them to advertise with them. Google bondage porn now and you find tube sites with stolen content. The first actual producer is Hogtied from Kink.com down at the bottom of page three.
They claim they remove search results if they’ve had enough DCMA copyright notices about a page. But this is disingenuous. Google is in the business of building search algorithms. That allows them to deliver good search results on page one, and encourages advertisers to pay because customers stick with Google. If Google wanted to push pirate tube sites down the search rankings, they’ve got hundreds of very smart people who could work that into the algorithms. They haven’t.
That puts a lot of financial pressure on producers, who are now competing with their own stolen material and denied even the chance to pay to show their own sites above the pirates.
Credit Card Companies
Credit card companies levy hefty penalties against the erotica industry. Not without reason, they say the transactions are high risk. They are probably right. Because of the hysterical reaction some people have to the entirely normal situation of a grown adult person looking at porn, one can imagine the conversations when an unexpected charge is detected on a partner’s credit card.
“Oh! My card details must have been stolen online! I’ll call the bank!”
The merchant has essentially no say in this process (not the credit card companies’ fault- it’s the law). We just have to accept that sometimes someone charges back a dozen monthly payments worth of website memberships because “my card was stolen and I didn’t notice for a year”. Yeh, right.
What we’d do if we were a mature society is accept that people like porn, and if you have a problem with your partner doing so you’d talk about it to each other, and come up with a mature and considered solution. But that’s not how it is, and with the way things are going, that’s now how it is going to be in the future either.
So we’d love to accept payment methods other than credit cards. But credit cards are only available to people over 18, so the use of one is often used as a de facto age verification process. So one of the things the UK censor of video on demand is requiring is that only credit card payment be accepted.
Oh, and you used to be able to get a merchant account for adult processing fairly easily in the old days. These days it is prohibitive for any small company to do. So a little restaurant or pub or craft shop can get a merchant account and start processing right away. In my observation these businesses have a pretty high risk of failure, although admittedly they probably don’t suffer the chargeback crisis. So adult companies are forced into the hands of payment processing companies who levy eye-watering charges. a) Because they can and b) to give themselves some insulation against the chargebacks by aggregating payments for many producers.
iBill, CCBill, Clips4Sale, Epoch and the rest
iBill was the first big name processor. They imploded, taking a bunch of websites with them. The second mass die-off I can remember.
Their successors are CCBill, Clips4Sale, Epoch and the rest.
On the one hand, it is great that they exist. They enable cottage industry adult production, without them there would be NO small websites producing niche fetish material. On the other hand, they have often arbitrary compliance codes. Many sites have had to gut their descriptive text to avoid whatever CCBill think is bad this month.
Furthermore, if CCBill think you’ve been naughty, they can keep your money for six months to a year. It is right there in their terms and conditions.
This is an example of the creeping censorship by the back door imposed by corporations on erotica and adult freedom of expression. You can still say it, but you can’t say it and make a business out of it. And you can’t challenge it- there’s no court of appeal for CCBill deciding your content is not the sort of thing they want to handle any more.
Clips4Sale pre-emptively blocked UK debit cards earlier this month. I believe it is back now, but it hardly makes one feel safe hosting material on their service.
If your favourite site bills with one of these companies, the text on the site has already been censored. The producers and performers can’t say what they really want to say. (For example, you can’t post an essay on why BDSM isn’t rape, because it contains the word “rape”. See what I mean about the chilling effect of censorship?)
Censors pressuring the banks
The UK video on demand censor has been trying to make bank block payments to websites outside the UK which don’t conform to their regulations. That’s not just putting financial pressure on the producers, it is using financial pressures to make sure you can’t buy what you want to buy. Thus far the banks have declined to go along with it. But Home Office minister Damian Green has said “the government supports their work on whether banks can decline to process payments to websites operating outside the EU”.
So if we tolerate this, your freedom to buy what you want will be next.
This is not paranoia, this is stated policy from the censor. And like the R18 regulations it will disproportionately hit small producers making cool, kinky, queer, feminist or minority interest erotica, because these are the small businesses. And small businesses are always more vulnerable- we just don’t have the resources to fight hostile regulations or take legal action or do anything much other than shut up shop and do something else for a living.
Out of the blue one day, Blogger ordered all money-related links on adult blogs removed. I’ve yet to hear an even faintly sensible explanation.
We copied Ariel’s blog posts across to here in case. What it means is that she’s still allowed to talk about the lovely fetish shoots she does, but she’s not allowed to link to them or let you know who they are so they can share some love.
3) Corporate Censorship
In many ways this is most insidious and most worrying aspect of censorship in the 21st Century.
Many of us use large corporations on the Internet as utility companies. We use their services as infrastructure to reach other people and to do business. Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, YouTube, Vimeo, Google, Microsoft, Wikipedia, Paypal. Smaller utilities serving niches like PurplePort, Purestorm, Model Mayhem.
But these are not utility companies. The utility companies are the internet service providers, mobile phone networks and web hosting companies. They get paid like utility companies too: according the amount of service you use. A fat pipe to the internet costs more than a piddly slow connection.
Governments are regulating them: the UK has forced ISPs to implement “won’t someone think of the children” filters (which 90% of people have sensibly turned off, despite the pernicious requirement by the government that they be switched on by default). They are requiring ISPs to keep and give up traffic details which can reveal almost as much about you as the content you are looking at. Knowing who you talk to, where and when and how often and for how long, is almost as revealing as knowing what you are talking about. It’s called traffic analysis. They’d certainly be able to figure out if someone is having an affair, or regularly attends alcoholics anonymous meetings.
But these things are brazen, and easy to find out about. Worrying, but open.
The worst thing of all is the creeping censorship amongst the utilities which aren’t utilities.
Apple won’t let you sell an app of nudie pictures. Because nipples. It’s great that Tim Cook has come out as gay, but sad that his company is so offended by the naked human form as to ban it in all their works. You can buy Fifty Shades of Grey from Apple, but not something like Screw The Roses or Chanta’s book which will actually tell you how to do BDSM safely in a loving and consensual environment. How fucked up is that?
Amazon started hiding erotica. And then decided to ban a lot of BDSM just for being BDSM. Overnight, a small but vibrant community of eBook erotic and romantic authors had their business model whipped out from under them.
I’ve had an account on Vimeo for a couple of years. Their guidelines said nudity was OK but porn wasn’t. I posted some of our most romantic videos, including “Bondage can be Beautiful” (our trailer- which incidentally RED digital cinema said they were happy for us to use the RED logo on. Thanks, RED. You don’t know how welcome that was!) and “Ballerina loves Beethoven”, which is a beautiful film of Ariel as a ballet dancer. These videos had hundreds of thousands of views, and hundreds of positive comments.
This week the axe fell. My account was deleted from Vimeo. No “this video is OK, that isn’t”. Just – chop. Gone.
Vine – and soon Twitter?
Vine, which is owned by Twitter, is blocking adult content.
Facebook is puritan central and always has been. Instagram likewise.
Social Media Future
Personally the only social media service I’ve ever liked is Twitter. I’ll bet you a tenner the @RElegance account will be axed inside 12 months, and all the other adult ones along with it.
No matter that thousands of people follow it, and presumably enjoy seeing bondage photos on their timeline (or they would unfollow again). No, all it will take is a few outraged “won’t someone think of the children” complaints, and it’ll all be gone.
The Shame Game
They’re playing the same shame game that the gay and lesbian community have had to endure for years. Ignoring that adult humans are sexual beings. Pretending that “all those perverts who look at this stuff” are not also the people who buy cars and kid’s toys (because they’ve had sex to have the kids, but mustn’t admit to it).
It is trying to say that people with sexual identities aren’t also functioning members of society. We’ve finally… finally! got gay marriage accepted in the Western world, and gay sex made legal. It is now OK to be gay and be the head of a large corporate, and thank goodness. But it is time we insisted on the same for other sexual identities too. Being into BDSM is one single aspect of your personality. It doesn’t make you of another species, some strange alien who doesn’t buy fruit or watch the news.
There are so many problems here. The first is that we are not willing to pay for services online. When you post a letter, you pay for the envelope and stamp. But no-one is willing to pay to tweet or follow on Facebook. Me included. This leaves the online service utilities like Facebook and Twitter to try to make money in other ways, and it means that we have no say whatsoever in their terms and conditions. We aren’t Facebook or Twitter’s customers. The advertisers and people they sell our details to are.
The only say we have in how the service treats us is to stop using the service if we don’t like it. When a mass migration happens (remember MySpace?) that can kill off the business, but if we withdraw in ones and twos, it makes no difference.
The adult content on these sites is irrelevant to Facebook and Twitter’s customers, the advertisers. Despite what the porn panic people would have you believe, porn is not big business. The revenue we make from it is small beans compared with what a car manufacturer might make by persuading thousands more people to buy their hatchback. The majority of us watch porn, but only a small minority are willing to pay for it. So there’s just not enough money around for us to be big players in advertising.
While people are too afraid of the shame game to admit to liking porn, so they won’t complain on our behalf when it the axe falls on Tumblr and Twitter. They’ll just quietly watch us go, and wonder where else they’ll find their porn fix now.
We’ve almost lost the ability to be an adult online
In the rush to think of the children, we’ve nearly run out of places to be adults. We’ve certainly lost a lot of places to be sexual, even though a huge fraction of human communication is sexual in one way or another (just look at a typical perfume advert to see what I mean). We just can’t admit to liking it. We have to keep up the “us and them” shame game pretence.
You are running out of places to post those sexy selfies.
You are running out of ways to reach an audience with your erotic fiction.
You are running out of places to find out about sites that might interest you.
It’s not OK to be an adult on the internet. We’re an endangered species. The freedom of the current generation to find out about their fetishes and sexual identities online may not be available to the next generation. Do we really want to go back to the dark ages of worrying that being sexually dominant and into BDSM makes you a potential serial killer? Shouldn’t we be celebrating sexual diversity, the freedom of sexual information? After all, 99.99% of the people on this planet are the result of sex between two adults. What on earth is so wrong with seeing it and discussing it and enjoying it?
What can we do?
For the UK producers, the R18 regulations applying to online video on demand is kind of the last straw. We fight this or BDSM disappears from the UK. It’s the latest wave of site die-offs. I personally know of many which have closed, several which have moved abroad in the last three weeks, and the rest of us feel under threat like never before. Because we ARE under threat.
It is naive to think that the censors will stop at this, as they are proudly announcing their intention, with the support of government, to prevent us all accessing censored material from outside the UK.
So obviously, help fight the regulations. Tweet about it, sign petitions, organise protest, all the things I’ve spoken about in previous blogs.
But is there anything else we can do to prevent the large-scale creeping censorship?
First, don’t rely on any service where you are not the direct customer. Don’t blog on blogger, get a little bit of web space (ideally hosted in country with protected speech), install WordPress and do it yourself.
There are free and open source social media projects, like SocialNet Federated services such as quitter and even more distributed intiatives like diaspora*. These are a long, long way from having critical mass but at least they are somewhat decentralised and are operated by people who want to facilitate communication rather than make money. We need to consider using those, and notifying our communities before we all get the axe from the existing social media companies.
I’m considering setting up a kink-friendly server for Twitter-equivalent social media – no idea how, or how much it would cost to run, but worth a go.
Then there’s Fetlife, which is an advertising supported not-a-real-utility but one whose entire selling point is the presence of fellow kinksters. I must admit I’ve always found it impenetrable, but I’ll give it more of a go. At least they make some of their money from paid subscribers, so they have some customers who use their service rather than advertise via it.
But if you upload video to Fetlife, you’d better believe the UK censor will come gunning for you once they killed off the cottage industry websites. Because they have a classic perverse incentive (they are funded by the people they decide are eligible to be regulated by them) they have defined TV like video on demand to encompass everyone putting video online, more or less. They WILL come for Fetlife sooner or late, if not stopped.
I didn’t get much joy advertising on Fetlife- I think it is largely preaching to the choir, because most of the people on there are already doing BDSM. So I’m not sure its a good way to reach newbies. And I’d be much happier if they implemented a Twitter-like section.
But it behooves us to support what facilities do exist, and to be pro-active in looking around for ways to protect our freedom of expression. You may not need the Tor browser to access your favourite sites today, but you’d do well to have it ready for the day the axe falls.
If anyone has any knowledge or experience of running microblogging services, especially via diaspora*, please get in touch as I am interested in setting up a pod for kink-friendly posting.
If anyone knows about payment via Bitcoin, or if there are better alternatives, I’d also love to hear from you.
I’ll see if I can get https: implemented for our sites.
What else should we be doing?