What’s Next for Parler? Ask the Porn Industry.

The ‘free speech’ site isn’t the first to lose its web hosting. Here’s how the adult industry works around similar sanctions.

Photo: SOPA Images/Getty Images

In the wake of the Capitol riots last week, technology companies cracked down on Parler, a self-proclaimed “free speech” social media network, saying it failed to take down calls for violence. These measures extended further than the social media content warnings and suspensions that are usually at the heart of debates over online moderation. Instead, they aimed to take away the infrastructure that Parler needs to operate. First, the app was booted from the iOS and Google Play app stores. Then, Amazon dealt a knockout blow, rendering Parler inaccessible after removing the site from their web servers. And Parler wasn’t the only right-wing institution to face a loss of core infrastructure: That same week, payment processor Stripe announced it was severing ties with the Trump campaign.

This approach to regulating the internet mirrors one that tech companies have been engaged in for years — against the adult industry. By looking at how porn sites, cam show platforms, and sex toy retailers have responded to losing payment processors and hosting, we can get a sense of what might be next for Parler.

Almost all major routes to internet significance are closed to the adult industry. You have a great idea for an adult app? Too bad: Apple and Google both ban porn from their app stores. You want to fund your project on Kickstarter or Patreon? Those are also off-limits. Facebook won’t let you advertise on their platform, and Instagram isn’t a fan of porn, either. Even something as basic as finding a web host can feel like a dicey proposition: Anumber of popular hosting services, such as Squarespace, outright ban porn, while others, like Wix, have a prohibition on “obscene content” that could potentially be interpreted to mean porn is unwelcome on their platform. (Amazon, to its credit, has never had a problem hosting adult content on its web servers.)

Perhaps most significantly, in the fall of 2002, Visa and MasterCard declared pornography to be “high-risk” content, and that set off a cascade effect that made it much more difficult to make money selling adult content. PayPal quickly declared adult content to be unwelcome on its platform, going so far as to ban people it suspected of engaging in sex work from having personal PayPal accounts as well. New payment processors like Stripe and Amazon Pay cropped up, but they all followed the same rules: No adult content. If you wanted to charge money for porn, you had two real options. You could set up an account with a dedicated adult payment processor, who’d charge you high annual fees in addition to a hefty commission, or you could go independent and secure your own merchant account — an incredibly expensive and time-consuming endeavor.

Over the past few years, it’s started to feel like the alt-right internet is replaying the adult industry’s greatest hits.

Most adult companies chose the former option, setting up accounts with processors like CCBill and Epoch and swallowing the high fees and commissions. But some larger, extremely well-resourced companies — like Mindgeek, the parent company of Pornhub, YouPorn, and a number of other adult properties — created their own payment processors. And it was a strategy that served them pretty well right up until Visa and MasterCard decided to sever ties with Pornhub entirely in late 2020.

Over the past few years, it’s started to feel like the alt-right internet is replaying the adult industry’s greatest hits. In the wake of 2017’s violent, deadly demonstrations in Charlottesville, a number of payment processors — including Visa, Discover, and PayPal — began refusing to work with hate groups. And, just as happened 15 years earlier in the adult section of the internet, that decision had a fallout effect. Explicitly alt-right sites — like the crowdfunding platforms Hatreon and Freestartr — suddenly found that no one would process payments for them, rendering their business models utterly inoperable.

In the case of the adult industry, survival has largely been the result of dedication, ingenuity, and a willingness to go off the beaten path, even underground when required.

“We’ve survived by being incredibly adaptable,” says Mike Stabile, communications director for the adult industry trade group the Free Speech Coalition. For instance, when web hosts were more reluctant to work with porn sites, pornographers created dedicated adult web hosts. Web hosting companies Sin Safer, ElevatedX, and Vice Temple are all explicitly adult-friendly, offering a safe haven for adult sites that fear they might run afoul of a web host’s capricious enforcement policy.

When payment processors refused to work with adult sites, people did the work to be able to process credit cards on their own: Offbeatr, the short-lived adult crowdfunding site, was only able to exist because of an extensive amount of labor that went into getting their own payment processor. And when Visa and MasterCard cut ties with Pornhub in 2020, the site switched over to exclusively running on cryptocurrency.

These strategies have worked pretty well: The adult industry still exists, and though it’s more difficult to run an adult business than it is to run a mainstream one, people still manage to make a living selling porn. Yes, it’s a pain in the ass to not be able to list your product in an app store or advertise on Facebook. But the only thing that’s even come close to a potential death knell for online adult products is Visa and MasterCard’s decision to utterly sever ties with Pornhub.

According to Stabile, it’s Visa and MasterCard that have posed the biggest threat for the adult industry: When it comes to censorship, these credit card companies are “ultimately more powerful than the federal government.” For Parler, it may be hosting infrastructure that will be its undoing: As the Electronic Frontier Foundation noted in its statement on the situation, “[n]ow that the world has been reminded that infrastructure can be commandeered to make decisions to control speech, calls for it will increase” — and with violent right-wing speech in the spotlight, it’s likely to be under the most scrutiny going forward.

This isn’t to say that Parler’s current problems are insurmountable. Sure, it sucks to be booted from the app stores — but not being in app stores hasn’t stopped pornography from finding success on the open web. Getting kicked off Amazon web servers poses a bigger problem, though how much trouble it’s put Parler in depends on how dependent they were on AWS in the first place. (Corey Quinn, whose company works to help people optimize their AWS bills, recently outlined what losing AWS could mean for Parler in a Twitter thread, suggesting that Parler’s codebase might have to be entirely rewritten if it’s going to function off of AWS.) It is theoretically possible to set up a right-wing hosting company and a right-wing competitor to AWS — though it takes time, money, and a lot of tech talent. As a pioneering tech industry, adult companies have a long legacy of institutional knowledge about the internet, tech savviness, and infrastructure to fall back on. The alt-right, on the other hand, isn’t known for pioneering internet innovations.

Yet there’s something that the alt-right has in its favor, something no pornographer has ever been able to lay claim to: powerful political allies. Over the past few months, a number of prominent Republican politicians have begun flocking to Parler, including Sens. Ted Cruz and Rand Paul, and Reps. Elise Stefanik and Jim Jordan. As Big Tech has soured on the right, with President Donald Trump losing access to Twitter and Facebook, these politicians have been raising their voices to protest what they see as Silicon Valley overreach. And Parler’s already gearing up for a legal fight with a lawsuit that accuses Amazon of breaking antitrust law. If Parler and other hate sites manage to survive this onslaught, it may not be due to the ingenuity, tech talent, and sheer dedication that has kept porn afloat. Their salvation may ultimately come at the behest of friends in high places.

OneZero columnist, Peabody-nominated producer, and the author of Faking It: The Lies Women Tell About Sex — And the Truths They Reveal. http://luxalptraum.com

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