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The end of algorithmic moderation or the emergence of a new automated morality?

by on August 23, 2021

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Mastercard vs Onlyfans

 
We’ve previously and repeatedly written about how sex workers are the Internet’s equivalent of the canary in the coal mine as what happens to them will inevitably happen to us.

With this in mind, Mastercard’s recent near fatal attack on OnlyFans is worth paying attention to.

OnlyFans is both sketchy and lucrative. The platform has made online sex work more accessible, but also enabled influencers to appropriate the allure and money with little risk (or for that matter nudity).

Yet now Mastercard is compelling OnlyFans to radically alter their business model, assuming they still want to use Mastercard as a payment system. In response OnlyFans has announced they will ban sex work from their platform (but still permit nudity).

The impact of this announcement has sent shockwaves through the Internet and the larger economy, as this will impact a lot of people, especially given the pandemic induced success of the platform.

The rules that Mastercard is imposing are significant, and represent a major reversal in how content is regarded and governed online.

These rules are largely in response to controversy over child pornography and exploitation on PornHub, the video platform that dominates the adult entertainment industry. While said concerns are not unfounded, and OnlyFans absolutely deserves to come under greater scrutiny, there are legitimate and widespread concerns that these measures are about religious morality rather than protecting children or sex workers.

They don’t call it the world’s oldest industry/profession for nothing. Given the diversity of options available on the Internet, (and if this action was not so obviously driven by religious morality), one might speculate Mastercard was trying to boost cryptocurrency adoption by driving sex work away from semi-legitimate platforms.

Yet let’s not lose sight of the larger directive away from algorithmic oversight and a desired return to more responsibility over content.

The larger assertion behind these actions is that algorithmic vetting of content is not viable or successful. Porn platforms, like all others, have relied upon algorithms to police their content and this strategy has failed.

By insisting on reviews of all content and content creators, Mastercard is indirectly acknowledging the failure of algorithmic enforcement. In response, rather than comply, OnlyFans will simply shut down that part of its business.

Ironically, rather than accept that algorithmic enforcement is a failure, both OnlyFans and Mastercard are doubling down. How else would OnlyFans be able to detect sexual content or activity? How else can Mastercard detect and enforce activity?

This is the paradox, on the one hand they cannot automate policing of their platform if there is sexual activity, so instead they will automate policing of their platform to ban sexual activity?

Doesn’t sound like a positive trend for society or for sex workers who had found some modest success.


This isn’t the kind of issue that gets a lot of coverage in the typical media, technology or otherwise. Yet it foreshadows a trend in automated enforcement that we will certainly see more of.

As a result it helps to understand the human impact, if only so we can mitigate such harm and stupidity in the future.

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