OnlyFans, Locals, Stripe, and the payment processor police

Social subscriber platform OnlyFans is reportedly banning sexually explicit content, undermining the businesses of many of its creators in the process.

This is just the latest in a growing trend of digital platforms unilaterally excluding people from the part of the internet economy they control. Both Bloomberg and the Guardian report that the company has confirmed the ban is a direct result of pressure from payment processing organisations.

“OnlyFans said the ban, which will come into effect in October, followed pressure from banks and payment processors who raised concerns about the material it hosts,” says the Guardian report. “Rather than lose its ability to take payments, which would effectively kill the business altogether, OnlyFans has instead chosen to ban the adult material that made its name.”

So payment processors have effectively taken over the strategic planning of OnlyFans, without having to spend a cent and with no apparent accountability. OnlyFans has been running for five years and has recently experienced exponential growth, such that it now has over 150 million registered users, paying its 1.5 million creators in excess of 5 billion dollars per year. And yet its financial service partners are able to unilaterally erase what has made it such a success.

“Unlike other social platforms, OnlyFans is welcoming of all creator genres and their content,” says the website. As of October that will no longer be the case. Presumably there are plenty of OnlyFans creators who produce non-pornographic content but it’s generally understood that porn is where the money is. Of course it has to ensure it hosts no illegal content, and a recent BBC investigation suggests it may be lax in that respect, but this move transcends the law.

I’m going to switch to the first person at this point, because I have my own minor experience of being unilaterally excluded from an online financial ecosystem. Earlier this year I completed my first novel and decided to self-publish it on Amazon. I’m pleased to report it’s still available and have to say Amazon, for all my reservations about the behaviour of AWS, has been a pleasure to work with in this context.

When you self-publish you also self-market and I figured social media would be one of the most promising ways of spreading the word. I created a special Facebook page and tweeted about the book, but also researched more niche, bespoke alternatives. I ended up going for a new platform called Locals, which has the strapline ‘Control your Destiny’ and brings an OnlyFans-like subscriber model to social media.

One of the main appeals of Locals was that it was created by American YouTuber Dave Rubin, apparently in response, at least in part, to the unilateral banning by crowdfunding platform Patreon of fellow YouTuber Carl Benjamin, a.k.a. Sargon of Akkad. Benjamin was eventually forced to create his own website and Rubin resolved to provide a platform to allow independent creators to flourish, unconstrained by establishment censorship.

Since it’s subscriber-based, when you make a Locals creator account you are compelled to also open an account with its chosen payment processing partner, Stripe. I did so despite having little expectation of anyone paying to subscribe initially and the process was very straightforward. Some friends, however, took pity on me and subscribed at the basic – $5 per month – level.

Subsequently one of them had occasion to query some transactions with their bank and, not immediately recognising the Locals ones, mistakenly included them. The first I heard of it was an email from Stripe notifying me of a disputed payment and telling me that, not only had it been deducted from my Stripe account, but I had been charged an additional £15 per disputed payment. When I created the account it didn’t occur to me that I could end up losing money as a result.

I was given less than a month to present evidence of my innocence, something I wasn’t able to do as my friend’s bank took longer than that to retract the query. Nonetheless I’m pleased to report that Stripe did refund the money once it heard from my friend’s bank, despite that happening after its deadline.

But that wasn’t the end of it. I had also received an email notifying me of the closure of my Stripe account. “We’re writing to let you know that, after conducting a review of your business, we’ve found that it presents a higher level of risk than we are able to work with at this time,” it opened. The email went on to reassure me that the review was exhaustive and beyond dispute, noting “we’re also subject to strict requirements imposed by our partners in the payments ecosystem that dictate the level of risk that we’re allowed to support.”

I naturally assumed the query was the reason I had been put on Stripe’s shitlist and attempted to reason with its customer support team, only to be given more generic ‘because reasons’ types of responses. “I’m afraid we can’t offer much in the way of specifics regarding our review process for the sake of security, but please rest assured that we did a thorough review of your business and tried our hardest to continue working with you,” they said.

When the query was eventually resolved in my favour I had one more go at appealing to reason and got more of the same boilerplate stuff with many passages, including the one quoted in the previous paragraph, duplicated word-for-word. So that would appear to be that; I am banned for life from a major payment processing service over a minor misunderstanding that was resolved in my favour.

Since Stripe is their only financial services partner, this has profound implications for Locals as I am effectively kicked off there too. “At this time, we only have Stripe as a payment vendor so if you cannot connect to Stripe, any subscription money you earn will be held on your account until it can be paid,” emailed Locals in response to my query on the matter.

I mention my own experience not just for catharsis, but to illustrate how fragile and still subject to the whims of a few unaccountable organisations the digital commerce ecosystem is. Even Locals, which was created explicitly to offer a haven to those excluded from the mainstream internet economy, has its relationship with its users dictated by Stripe. I sent questions to both Stripe and Locals before writing this but have yet to hear back from either.

The broader implications of this trend were brilliantly described by former PayPal COO David sacks on the Substack (another independent publishing platform) of journalist Bari Weiss, titled Get Ready for the ‘No-Buy’ List. Sacks is as qualified as anyone to comment on the payment processor scene and is deeply concerned about both the ethics and the social implications of people being excluded from the internet economy.

“When someone mistakenly lands on the No-Fly List, they can at least sue or petition the government for redress,” wrote Sacks. “But when your name lands on a No-Buy List created by a consortium of private fintech companies, to whom can you appeal?

“Kicking people off social media deprives them of the right to speak in our increasingly online world. Locking them out of the financial economy is worse: It deprives them of the right to make a living. We have seen how cancel culture can obliterate one’s ability to earn an income, but now the cancelled may find themselves without a way to pay for goods and services.”

Sacks also noted Stripe was among the many finance tech companies to cut off Donald Trump on 12 January this year, despite him still being US President at the time. “I implore my successors at PayPal and other Big Tech companies to stop throwing kindling on the fires of populism by locking people out of the online public square and the modern web-based economy,” concluded Sacks.

OnlyFans, Stripe, Locals and PayPal are, of course, private companies, and many people think that means they can do what they want but, of course, they can’t. However, As Aella tweeted above, they are increasingly acting as a de facto legal system, with equivalent power to cast people out of society as governments. Sooner or later the unaccountable power of our digital overlords has to be contested, but that will require politicians acting against the interests of some of their most generous donors.


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One comment

  1. Avatar William 21/08/2021 @ 1:13 am

    Payment processors taking it upon themselves to effectively be the morality police, the end all be all arbiter of ethics? troubling.

    The overt underlying implicit threat here is that these payment system merchants would shut down Onlyfan’s means of revenue, and their streams of cashflow. which would kill the business as they have content creators they need to pay out every month.

    It’s important to note, as you did, that it’s these anonymous internet payments bankers scheming in the background, wreathed in shadows, that are making this decision, as the OF website is being threatened with financial bloodletting. They have to change their entire financial business model due to moral strictures of a certain amount of un-named individuals.

    What bothers me is it sounds like collusion. all these processors are in bed together, teaming up to create social and moral policy. it’s not the good ol’ capitalists, 1 or 2 of them could feign agreement then reap all the rewards being the Onlyfans payment processor. Point is, they’re not competing against each-other or trying to make financial gain at another payment processors expense which is concerning in a capitalistic society. In fact, they’re losing money because the website will now lose a substantial amount of it’s total revenues.

    So, do all these payment companies have the same worldviews and share the same theistic ideology or something? I really don’t know what’s going on, but there is blatant and clear as day collusion from these financial powerplaying corporate giants.

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