A group of sex work and civil rights activists are urging the Federal Trade Commission to investigate Mastercard for unfair business practices.
In October 2021, Mastercard implemented new rules that sex workers say made it more difficult for them to get paid for their legal, consensual work on online platforms.
The financial institution’s new standards came after Mastercard, Visa, and Discover also stopped processing payments for Pornhub, following a public pressure campaign from anti-porn groups that operate as anti-trafficking activists.
The complaint, filed on Wednesday by the ACLU and supported by groups including sex worker rights’ collective Hacking//Hustling and 20 more sex worker advocacy, anti-traﬃcking, and LGBTQ+ organizations claims that Mastercard’s “Revised Standards for New Specialty Merchant Registration Requirements for Adult Content Merchants” constitute unfair business practice under Section 5 of the FTC Act. They write in the complaint that Mastercard’s revision caused “substantial, unavoidable harms to sex workers with no demonstrable beneﬁt, and is within the purview of the FTC’s enforcement authority.”
The regulations imposed even stricter rules about who appears in adult content and the documentation, consent, and identification performers, models and platforms needed to submit to be allowed online. Mastercard also demanded that platforms review each piece of content before it goes online, and that platforms “provide Mastercard with temporary account credentials” if the credit card company requests it.
Seth Eisen, senior vice president of communications at Mastercard, told 404 Media in a statement:
Mastercard announced the revised standards in April of 2021, and enacted them in October. Eisen told me following the standards’ implementation in October that the program "does not impact legal adult activity created by consenting individuals or studios." Adult industry workers reported that this was contrary to their reality, reporting that they’d experienced serious hardship as a result of Mastercard’s new rules.
A group of sex workers met with Mastercard in October 2021 to discuss the impacts these standards would have on their livelihoods, and following the meeting, they said that they felt dismissed. "From this meeting it was made very clear that payment processors should not be in the position to offer guidance to banks on how to do business with the adult industry, or make policies that affect the lives of LGBTQ+, BIPOC and survivors working in the adult industry," a sex worker who attended the meeting told me at the time.
Valerie Webber, PhD in community health from Memorial University of Newfoundland, conducted a survey of sex workers online about Mastercard’s changes and how it impacted their lives. Webber found that in the three months after Mastercard’s new rules went into place, 90 percent respondents reported having detrimental impacts to their livelihoods, including “having an account flagged or closed, having to collect updated ID, having to remove content for thematic or redundant documentation rules, delays when having to reupload material for review, payment interruptions, or having a merchant account closed,” as defined by the survey. Some reported not being able to pay for heat in the winter and not being able to afford food.
In an ACLU video about the complaint, adult performer Vanniall said that Mastercard has a “stranglehold” on adult platforms, as one of the biggest payment processors in the U.S.
“Even if performers and websites wanted to stop offering Mastercard as a payment option, they could not do so without cutting off so much of their potential audience base that it becomes financially untenable,” the complaint states. “To avoid relying on Mastercard entirely, adult content creators would be forced to migrate to different and less mainstream adult content platforms, thereby losing followers and content.”
I asked the ACLU whether similar avenues are being explored for Visa, which also has been accused of discrimination against sex work and stopped service sites to Pornhub in 2020 and advertisements on the Mindgeek (now Alyo) network in 2022. "While many companies discriminate against sex workers in many ways, MasterCard was one of the first to write an explicit policy targeting platforms that sex workers use to make a living—which is why we hope the FTC will set a precedent that all payment processors will notice," Gillian Branstetter, communications strategist at the ACLU, told me.
While many companies discriminate against sex workers in many ways, MasterCard was one of the first to write an explicit policy targeting platforms that sex workers use to make a living—which is why we hope the FTC will set a precedent that all payment processors will notice.
The ACLU complaint to the FTC alleges that Mastercard’s content policies “extend to the appearance of illegal conduct, though the policy does not specifically define what content is permitted.” Porn is constitutionally protected First Amendment speech, but policies like Mastercard’s make it virtually impossible for payment providers to provide services for people who engage in it, they write.
“Mastercard’s vague and ambiguous policy requirements, coupled with the dangerous combination of platform overcompliance and inadequate automated tools, has led to the vast censorship of this entirely lawful category of speech,” the complaint states. “By chilling this particular form of protected free speech, Mastercard has destabilized businesses and, most notably, the lives of thousands of adult content creators.”
8/31/23, 1:40 pm EST: This article was updated with comment from the ACLU.