One of the most frequent battle cries in these days is «fight the banks!» and for good reasons. There is no doubt that the extravagant freedoms financial institutions have invested themselves of and the apparent legal immunity from the consequences of their actions have conspired to create a big part of the current worldwide crisis. You can (and should) read about this pretty much everywhere already, but you may not be aware of another disturbing form of financial interference in our lives. Let me explain.
Every online business has to work with two separate entities to accept money from its users: cards and processors. The former validate the titles used for purchases, and the latter manage the actual digital transactions. Procedures can vary a little with different partner combinations, but this basically means that both are needed to keep the business going.
Now, these entities obviously have ethical policies in place to prevent their involvement in criminal activities. No credit card company will knowingly help you buy illegal drugs online, in example. This is commendable… but for one aspect. In the effort of keeping everything in the clear said policies adhere – sometimes preemptively – to the broadest interpretation of the laws, even when they simply are local, moral or plain crazy.
The arrangement is usually harmless, unless you are a kinky business – even if a very legitimate one. The latest story involves pervy social network giant Fetlife, whose new year started with the sudden cancellation of the merchant arrangement allowing it to offer premium services and to accept donations. The reason? They allegedly allowed the depiction of criminal activities on their website.
After the initial panic it turned out that their kiddy porn was in fact composed of tame drawings and fantasy roleplay discussion groups, as was the bestiality content. Scat stuff was real instead, but the truth of the matter is that it isn’t illegal at all in most of the world – indiscriminately punishing the whole site was then conceptually close to closing a shop because it has a picture of the virgin Mary on a wall while religious imagery is forbidden in some Middle Eastern country. In a nutshell, the perceived infractions weren’t there at all by many interpretations.
In the end Fetlife’s solution was to make a further sweep check of their users-posted contents, remove every possibly offensive material and take down hundreds of potentially controversial group. Which sounds sensible until you consider the implications.
While it would be clearly impractical for them to act any differently and the matter is way too complex to be addressed in any broad stroke, this also means that to all practical extents a financial institution is allowed to decide what is appropriate for your erotic fantasies and what is not – and if you don’t agree to its world view you are just out of business. End of the story.
So is it acceptable for Visa or American Express to dictate that you cannot look at Japanese mangas and their evidently imaginary stories (a minority of which do in fact include underage or potentially underage characters)? Is it reasonable that an online payment processor may decide that it is immoral for you to fantasize about toiletsex even if it is perfectly legal in your country? How do you feel about online shops being crippled because a merchant suddenly decided that selling ‘torture and imprisonment devices’ was against its company policy (I was there when it happened to two acquaintances of mine, driving them into bankruptcy)?
No matter what our personal inclinations are, I feel slightly worried by events like these. Just a few weeks ago Russia declared “gay propaganda” illegal, in example, and given how vaguely it is legally defined countless people are now risking their businesses and living. How easy would it be for a repressive institution to wipe out alternative sex cultures in the “free world” just by a financial trick, then?