opinion
3 min

What just happened to kink social network FetLife is a bad sign for web freedom

Moral policing determines what’s bought and sold online

Who gets to decide what’s bought and sold on the internet? In the digital age, the answer to that question is critically important for sexual minorities. Without the freedom to exchange money, artists flounder, companies fail and communities grind to a halt. Just ask FetLife.

Last month, the millions-strong kink social network announced it was tightening community guidelines to ban depictions or discussion of edgier kinks, including blood, non-consent, alcohol, cutting, and the vaguely defined “obscenity.” At the same time, the network deleted thousands of photographs, groups and fetish categories without warning. The reason? Credit card companies.

In an apologetic post to the FetLife community, founder John Kopanas — better known on the site by his username JohnBaku — said the restrictions were the only way out of an existential threat. The company’s bank, he said, threatened to shut down FetLife’s merchant account at the request of credit card companies that objected to the site for “illegal or immoral” reasons.

Since a functioning merchant account is the only way the site can accept membership payments from its users, Kopanas wrote, he had no choice but to submit.

This is scary stuff, and not just for FetLife.

Much of the material that Kopanas was forced to delete isn’t illegal, at least in Canada and the United States. It doesn’t even line up particularly well with the UK’s new and puritanical web censorship rules. Financial companies therefore very likely aren’t censoring FetLife because they have to; they’re doing it because they want to, or because they don’t want to be associated with its content.

The upshot is that credit card companies may have unprecedented power to pick and choose what content can be paid for on the web.

Kopanas has stayed conspicuously silent since his Jan 18, 2017 announcement. FetLife’s Vancouver-based parent company Bitlove Inc has no listed office address, and Kopanas has not responded to repeated requests for an interview.

Despite the content crackdown, FetLife seems to have lost the ability to process credit cards, though the site is still accepting bank transfer payments.

FetLife has had a rocky history since it launched in 2008. The site was inundated with new users during the Fifty Shades of Grey frenzy of the early 2010s causing an identity crisis and temporary restrictions on new signups, and was rocked last year by rape allegations against an Australian man who police say used FetLife to find victims. Some users have also been critical of Kopanas’ failure to kick abusers or pedophilia groups off the site fast enough.

The FetLife community has reacted with a combination of rage and sympathy to Kopanas’ announcement. Some users say they support his attempt to save the community. Others, such as hypnotism fetishists who saw their groups and content wiped out because they fall on the hazy line of “non-consent,” posted angry comments demanding an explanation.

“It is obvious to me that Fetlife is no longer the welcoming and accepting place it once was,” one longtime user wrote, bemoaning what he sees as an inevitable slide into the vanilla mainstream.

“Do what you have do to keep FetLife running,” another user countered. “We are strong and resilient. And if at the end of the day, certain pictures, posts, writings, names, whatever have to be removed, sanitized, etc to keep FetLife on the map, we can do it.”

Whatever users may think, if financial companies call the shots on what kind of content can be bought with their services, sites like FetLife may have little choice but to either comply or fold. No other way of moving money through the internet can yet compete with credit cards; bank transfers are complicated and expensive across national boundaries, and cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin are yet unrealistic for large-scale commerce.

But there are a lot of unanswered questions about the FetLife story. Why did FetLife lose its credit card services but keep its merchant accounts? What negotiations did Kopanas have with his bank, and what part did the bank play in crafting the new content rules? How easily did Kopanas give up the fight? Is there anything that could have been done?

In his post, Kopanas says there was nothing he could do to fight back. Without further details of what exactly happened at FetLife, it’s hard to tell if he’s right. Most of the dozen or so lawyers, law professors, business professors and civil rights experts I contacted for this story felt there were just too many unknowns in Kopanas’ story to know if the company had any other choices.

We would have to know more to really understand FetLife’s options, agrees Vancouver lawyer Garth Barriere. He suggests, however, the remedy is more likely to be social than legal. Unlike classic censorship battles such as Little Sister’s decades-long challenge to Canada Customs’ homophobic book seizures, FetLife is up against a private company and not a government agency.

“The credit card company isn’t saying that the company can’t exchange money for its services,” Barriere notes. “It’s just saying the company can’t do it through its particular credit card platform. This is the catch-22 of technology: it allows us to do all of these amazing things, but then we also become very reliant on them.”

If Kopanas’ story is true, financial companies hold a soft veto on much of what gets paid for on the web — and are willing to use that power to enforce mainstream morals. For sexual minorities, that’s bad news.