Should U.S. credit card companies impose American morals on other countries?
Workers in Australia’s adult sex trade certainly don’t think so.
This week, American Express, MasterCard and Visa reportedly cut off all debit and credit card payments for the sexual services advertised on Backpage.com in America, where sexual solicitation is illegal, as well as Australia, where it’s been decriminalized in most states. Backpage.com’s sex trade business blossomed after Craigslist stopped offering adult services listings.
Cook County, Illinois, Sheriff Thomas Dart prompted the move with a letter this week that said Backpage had been “objectively found to promote prostitution.” He said the card companies “have the moral, social and legal right to step up on this pervasive problem and make a fundamental and everlasting difference.”
Meanwhile down under, the Aussies are fuming that the U.S. credit card giants have imperiled their perfectly legal livelihood by imposing Puritanical American mores on their major source of advertising.
“We shouldn’t be taking away people’s livelihoods just purely because the industry that they are in is one that we don’t understand or one that bothers us,” sex worker Lucie Bee vented to Fairfax Media. “These sites are often some of the best options for new sex workers, for those that perhaps can’t afford to pay the ad costs for more exclusive websites.”
This delicate dance is nothing new to the big three card brands. They’ve been under pressure from lawmakers, law enforcers and public interest groups for years to cut off payment access to online industries that offend moral sensibilities, including gambling, gun sales, medical and recreational marijuana, and a running list of hackers du jour.
The card networks’ response, or lack of one, often generates its own controversy. If they take action, those in the industry and civil libertarians cry foul, saying that selectively pruning payments by type violates all manner of personal and commercial freedoms. If they take no action, those looking to shut down credit card access to illegal or controversial industries say card company inaction makes the social problems worse.
Understandably, the big three keep their cards pretty close to their chest when it comes to explaining their decisions. Visa’s statement regarding the Backpage.com dustup is fairly typical. Noting that its rules prohibit card transactions for “illegal activity,” the statement says, “Visa has a long history of working with law enforcement to safeguard the integrity of the payment system and we will continue to do so.”
While MasterCard and Visa allow their cards to be used to process online gambling transactions in states where it’s legal, they don’t extend the same courtesy for pot purchases, even where it’s legal, because marijuana remains a controlled substance at the federal level.
Aussie sex worker Fleur insists she and her colleagues are not the problem; they’re the victims.
“The biggest issue is not whether I can post an ad; it’s that in Australia, sex work is legal,” she says. “I’m not doing anything illegal. It’s a very clear case of discrimination.”