In December 2020, Visa and Mastercard announced they would be blocking users from making purchases on adult site Pornhub, following allegations of child abuse, sexual assault and revenge pornography being allowed on the site. Pornhub reacted to this immediately by removing all videos that were not verified, which was the majority of their content.
Following this, after Trump supporters laid siege to Capitol Hill in January 2021, payment processor Stripe announced they would no longer be processing payments for Trump’s administration. Stripe said they won’t accept payments for ‘high-risk’ activities, especially for businesses and individuals that “engages in, encourages, promotes or celebrates unlawful violence or physical harm to persons or property”.
Whether people agree with these institutions’ actions or not, it certainly raises questions as to whether or not financial freedom still exists in the contemporary world. With cashless payments becoming the norm, and cash becoming increasingly irrelevant in the Western world, it does give private companies like Visa, Mastercard and Stripe power over who they allow to use their services.
Pornhub: Visa and Mastercard announced they would be blocking all transactions to adult site Pornhub. This was a reaction to an investigation by Nicolas Kristof – an opinion columnist for the New York Times – who alleged that the site allows revenge pornography and videos uploaded without the consent of the participants.
Kristof also alleged that the site has “monetised child rape” and does not have enough safeguards in place to distinguish legal and illegal content from each other.
In response, Pornhub immediately removed all videos that were not verified by them from the website and denied all allegations. They added that they found the decision “exceptionally disappointing” and that the news was “crushing for the hundreds of thousands of models who rely on our platform for their livelihoods”. They have also banned downloads direct from the site.
Stripe: Stripe, a payment processor, have distanced themselves from the Trump campaign. Despite Trump’s campaign paying Stripe more than US$1.8 million in the 2020 election cycle alone (according to a report by Federal Election Commission records), Stripe have cut ties with them.
The San Francisco-based company said that Trump encouraged violence on the 6th January 2021, when Trump supporters laid siege to Capitol Hill and forced entry. Stripe has user policies that prohibit “high-risk” activities when using their services, and decided that Trump was in direct violation of those policies. The policy also states that accounts are restricted if the person or business “engages in, encourages, promotes or celebrates unlawful violence or physical harm to persons or property.”
Stripe is one of many companies in the United States who have distanced themselves from Trump and specific Republican Congress members, who have been accused of attempting to overturn the election results after objecting to the Electoral College results.
It seems as if financial freedom is at an end.
For the record, regarding Visa and Mastercard’s decision to suspend payments to Pornhub, I agree with them. Child pornography, rape and other non-consensual forms of abuse must never be monetised. In the interests of morality, finances and public relations, it would be unwise to continue doing business with a company who have been accused of such shocking things.
As for the Trump situation I am still undecided, as I see no hard evidence of Trump actively encouraging violence, although I will say that his administration is not looked upon too favourably at the moment.
My primary concern comes from the amount of power these companies have. It shows that at any time, for any reason, they can suspend an account for reasons they see fit.
Whilst it’s perfectly reasonable and understandable that safeguards have to be in place, my concern comes to where the line is drawn between legitimate safety or legal boundaries and a simple difference of opinion between the user and the company/owner.
These major companies that own most of the market share of their respective industries (such as Visa and Mastercard), have terms and conditions that seem less like boundaries and more like biased restrictions on day-to-day life, due to their monopoly and the power that brings, and the lack of competition.
With contactless payments becoming the primary way to purchase and sell products, people’s livelihoods hang in the balance, purely at the discretion and mercy of their respective financial institutions.
The power to suspend a person’s finances – and therefore by extension, their lives – can easily be weaponised. Today, it’s to stop child pornography and abuse. Tomorrow, it will be to stop the livelihood of a person who has committed a “hate crime” by having a controversial opinion on a matter.
If, for example, banks decide not to do business with people who are deemed ‘homophobic’, would that mean religious leaders (many of which strongly believe in traditional heterosexual marriage) would no longer be able to buy or sell things?
Their lives would effectively be suspended unless they go against their conscience and beliefs. Banks would have the power to effectively coerce and blackmail people into behaving a certain way.
We should all be very concerned about the power of these financial institutions. There is a line that must be drawn and regulation must be imposed in order for financial freedom to be preserved.
There are plenty of moral and legal reasons to deny or terminate financial services with both individuals and organisations. Those undergoing criminal charges, especially if they relate to financial abuses, often have assets frozen or removed. People with poor credit scores are not typically trusted with huge loans. There is already a wealth of legal regulations in place to assess such cases. On the in international stage, sanctions and tariffs are employed between states for a variety of reasons- some more justifiable than others. In 2010, the whistleblower website WikiLeaks suffered an extra-legal financial blockade spurred on by unofficial government pressure, though they had not been charged with any crime in the United States.
However, overtly political discrimination against private citizens (when criminal charges are not involved) should not be encouraged. Such practice poses a danger both to the targeted individual and their family and the balance of society as a whole.
Yet the explosion of online systems such as Monzo, Revolut and Starling Bank over the past few years is proof that there remains plenty room for innovation outside of traditional banking. In the absence of hard-line regulations in the UK & US, the banking sector will continue to diversify and those who may decide to unfairly penalise their own customers will simply lose out on their share of the market.
Of course, the issue is not so simple. If financial services begin to flex their moral muscles against customers, it may not be as simple as a smooth transition to another service. People can and already do across the world, lose income, savings, property and livelihoods over corporate discrimination. As California-based NGO The Electronic Frontier Foundation highlights: “Any website or individual can find itself running afoul of Visa and Mastercard’s moral sensibilities and shut off from receiving online payments.”