Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Too Severe for CCBill

Those of you with a subscription to Pandora Blake's site Dreams of Spanking might have noticed that Kaelah's and my martial arts-themed hard caning scene The Final Test, about which we wrote a detailed behind-the-scenes report here, is no longer available. Pandora's credit card processor CCBill insisted on it being either heavily cut or taken down because they deemed the majority of the caning to be too physically severe. Pandora, having no desire to mutilate a scene into which I and especially Kaelah had poured so much effort, decided to take it down entirely. However, you will get the opportunity to see it again in the future - for free!

The Final Test was not the only video on Pandora's site which came in for CCBill's corporate censorship scissors. Pandora had to edit any reference to "force" out of the texts on the site, changing wordings like “He forces Sebastian to bend over and endure an embarrassing bare bottom spanking” to “Sebastian is obliged to bend over”. Some screengrabs from the video The Captain and the Tavern Wench had to be removed for showing welts that were deemed too severe, and a single droplet of blood had to be photoshopped out of screengrabs of an otherwise pretty moderate birching scene (birches easily break the skin, even when not applied with much force). The videos themselves were allowed to stay. All scenes of swordfights were not allowed to stay, though, because of "weapons pointed at the model". In the comedic nautical romp The Pirates of the Jolly Kraken, the following sequence featuring rubber swords (!) is apparently too risqué for CCBill:

The content we are talking about is perfectly legal in the UK, the US and pretty much every other Western democracy (with the possible exception of the radical feminist nanny state of Iceland). This is simply about CCBill insuring themselves against bad publicity from the Christian right, the pseudo-feminist left and other self-appointed moral guardians. The company's thinking probably goes something like this: "We are going to process payments for porn sites, because they bring in some nice money for us, but at the same time, we have to suppress whatever the prudes might deem too extreme, because we want to keep the prudes' business as well!"

We send our commiserations to Pandora for having to go through this nonsense. Shooting your own content and running your own website is a lot of work at the best of times, and you certainly don't want to spend hours and hours on top of that to revise your site and cater to the whims of your payment processor. Pandora writes:

I am furious that after all my efforts to create a site that shows the enthusiastic consent and ethical production behind the porn I make as clearly, accessibly and transparently as possible, I am still being fucked over. This has nothing to do with the UK extreme porn legislation, and little to do with Visa’s requirements – far more severe sites accept credit cards perfectly happily. This is about CCBill covering their asses, and fuck all my efforts to do things right; every blogpost, every comment from happy performers, every behind the scenes video, all for nothing. They have zero legal standing for refusing to process payments for content that is legal, but they have me and every other producer by the short hairs, and so they get away with it. If you’re rich enough to work for free you can do what you want, but if you’re a self-funded start-up relying on income from sales to keep producing, you are fucked, because you have to do what you’re told or you can’t get paid.

And that is that, really. I can't say that I am furious myself. I'm afraid I am much too cynical, and have been for years, to get even mildly angry anymore at people being ignorant and hypocritical. It is to be expected, especially when sexuality is concerned. You can watch boxing matches in our sports arenas, with two heavyweight fighters pummeling each other to the point of lacerations, concussions and broken bones. Videos of real accidents and mishaps on YouTube, often with the participants going through obvious great pain. Not to mention the countless fictional treatments of murder, kidnapping, armed robbery etc. in movies and TV series. All of this is mainstream entertainment. But when it comes to BDSM activities between consenting adults, a single droplet of blood is suddenly considered an alarming injury, and any story involving even the merest hint of non-consent suddenly becomes morally objectionable. What else is new? On the verge between the industrial age and the information age, our societies still have not developed a grown-up, evidence-based, rational outlook on sexuality, and perhaps they never will.

I can see the funny side of it. Actually, my inner aolescent* who loves to be "evil" is delighted that The Final Test was judged "too severe for CCBill". Free advertising like this has made many a shock rock band great. Kaelah is amused as well that she, personified Miss Goody-Two-Shoes, has done something that someone deems worth censoring. (* I guess I can write "adolescent" here. I would not dream of using such a problematic and easily misinterpreted term on an erotic site using CCBill.)

Oh, and the good news for you is that Pandora is planning to release our scene for free:

I’m going to create a new mini-site – I’ve already bought the domain – and publish [the scenes] there. For free. So these requirements are handed down to CCBill from Visa; all other billing agents are the same? Fuck capitalism: I’ll give it all away. Full length video downloads, image galleries, behind the scenes documentaries, associated writings, everything. Plus the comments, the blog posts, the performer bios, all the surrounding context that demonstrates the ethical production and enthusiastic content that went into the making of those scenes, because without that, it’s not representative of what I’m doing.

Free range porn, released into the wild! It’s an exhilarating, liberating prospect. Free economics: the last line of defence against the capitalist censors. If I’m not charging, there’s not a damn thing they can do about it.

"Free range porn"? I like the sound of that.


Ursus Lewis said...

It makes me angry when ever companies decides what's right and wrong. Even more if it is arbitrary. CCBill processes other spanking porn producer. It's nothing than arbitrary what they decide that has to be taken offline or edited... It's a shame.

Anonymous said...

Odd censorship indeed. Glad to hear that the full video will be posted. Thanks for keeping us abreast on this. You-tube is part of the nanny state, but capitalism usually doesn't care unless they fear retribution from some origination. Too bad we have to waste blog space on this.


Our Bottoms Burn said...

CCBill either has an their own agenda or their lawyers are advocating that such content will led to suits from those that view such content with scorn. Either way, it's private transaction, without a nanny state involved. I would be more concerned if a government was doing the censorship. Surely CCBill has competition?

I am strongly in favor of a laissez-faire marketplace and that would include the right of a private company to be unreasonable. If they do it enough, they will no longer be in business.

Ludwig said...

@ Ursus Lewis: Yes, another aspect that makes these rulings frustrating for webmasters is that they are always enforced inconsistently. As far as I'm aware, there are other spanking sites processed by CCBill which feature videos with dark red welts, but CCBill did not complain about those. I guess it all depends to a large degree on chance and on which particular CCBill employee happens to assess your site.

@ Eric: CCBill is the issue, not YouTube. Although YouTube have some pretty arbitrary and inconsistently enforced rules as well.

@ Our Bottoms Burn: You are right, in principle, that CCBill are free to behave unreasonably and that customers could decide to use another company. And in principle, I am also in favour of a free market (with a certain level of government oversight to prevent corruption, cartels and similar abuse).

However, things are not always that simple in practice when you are a small, start-up video producer like Pandora. You have to rely on steady income to keep producing, and changing payment processors might cut off that steady income for a while. Also, changing payment processors costs a non-trivial sum of money in itself, because you have to pay a website designer to write scripts, integrate the site with the new processor, and so on.

Also, just as CCBill are free to make up their own rules, I am free to point out the hypocrisy and inconsistency in those rules where it exists. A consistent position would be to either process no payments for porn sites at all, period, in order to not offend the anti-porn lobby. Or, if CCBill are going to process payments for porn sites, to accept all content that is within the limit of the law (which Pandora's videos certainly are). However, to process payments for porn sites, take that income and then make up your own censorship rules is just hypocritical.

iwasrobert said...

CCBill have form for this: for some years they were very hard on Michael Masterson's Real Spankings network of sites, being quite specific in terms of what could and couldn't be shown in a manner which is similar to what you describe above. I also note with interest that they are not offered as a billing option for Lupus Pictures' subscription site at all; the only available processor is iNetCash, which is based in Germany.

Pandora said...

Thanks for the blog coverage, Ludwig. The sting has definitely worn off a bit - it was a shock to have to delete content, but overall it's just business as usual. Working on the free site has definitely been cheering. I'm just putting the finishing touches on it now, and will be announcing the URL soon!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this rather more balanced view of the situation, Ludwig.

I would add a few random remarks:

1. These regulations are nothing new. CCBill started imposing them about a decade ago (2002-2003) at the insistence of Visa. While the stated reason for the change in policy was to control chargebacks (and it's probably valid that the more "extreme" a website is, the more subscribers may try to deny that they were a subscriber), it is worth remembering that at the same time the US (Bush) Government was ramping up it's enforcement of 18 USC 2257 regulations under what they called the PROTECT act.

2. A lot of people -- including Pandora -- assert that the content is legal. Sadly, this claim is facially incorrect: the most can ever be said is that it _appears_ to be legal, but in any case involving "obscenity" the only way something can be proven legal is by winning in court. So while Pandora may _believe_ the material is all legal, if a politician or churchman leans on the prosecutor's office, they may decide that they do not agree with Pandora, and the way that difference of opinion gets settled is in court...

3. There are those who argue that even if the material is "problematic", that is Pandora's problem, not CCBill's. But it is easy to argue that it is CCBill that's actually selling the stuff and passing the producer a cut of the sales (think how record companies work). Is this a correct way of thinking? I don't know... but the only way to find out is in court!

4. Even if you do win in court, that only covers the jurisdiction of that court. So famously "Lady Chatterly's Lover" won an obscenity trial in the UK, but lost in Japan. Pandora would be hard to prosecute in (say) Japan, but CCBill may be rather easier!

5. Consistency: many people complain that the rules seem to be applied inconsistently. Well, yes, but we really don't want it otherwise, because CCBill isn't inventing special rules just for one site (Pandora's), they are just not scrutinizing every site all the time. If they did, they'd insist on all sites being "purified"!

6. In this particular case, the fact that the material is "ethical" and "feminist" seems to be seen as somehow important... but who judges what is ethical and feminist? You neatly pointed out that Iceland has its own version of feminism and/or ethics, and who are we to argue that some other group are wrong (even if we find them ridiculously nonsensical)?

7. This is the big one: we, as some kind of BDSM practitioners, work with the concept of "assumption of risk" every time we play. What we do carries some level of risk -- physical or psychological or even criminal in some places -- and we look at the risks, assess the rewards, and make a decision to participate or not accordingly. If a partner decides he or she doesn't want to play "like that", we may be disappointed, but we (hopefully) respect their right to decide for themselves. CCBill has done the same thing, yet they get blamed in a way that we'd find unacceptable in our personal lives.

Sorry for the length, but yours is the first piece that seems to acknowledge the reality that we can't always make money in quite the way we'd like to make it! Film-makers complain about having to cut scenes to get PG ratings (or whatever), TV people complain about having to cut shows for broadcast at particular times of day, and so on. We may not like it, but ultimately that's the price of society.

Spankingfreunde.DE said...

Das nennt man wohl Politik ...
Schade ....

Ludwig said...

@ iwasrobert: iNetCash might be an interesting option for video producers fed up with CCBill. We Germans have our own set of annoying traits, but we are somewhat less puritanical than the Anglosaxons when it comes to BDSM porn.

@ Pandora: I am looking forward to the site!

@ Anonymous: Thank you for your in-depth comment.

As far as I'm aware, the UK's Obscene Publications Act is almost never enforced in practice anymore. Hardcore pornography was effectively legalized in the UK in 2000, following the dismissal of a test case brought by the BBFC. Showing certain BDSM practices in videos might remain more of a gray area in theory, but given how many spanking video producers are openly making and selling videos in the UK, I don't see an issue there, either. As for the courts in Japan, I think that they, too, have better things to do than trying to prosecute a small, start-up producer of spanking videos in the UK.

I would have more sympathy for CCBill's actions if they faced a concrete, realistic threat of legal prosecution, but I don't see that as being the case here. Rubber swords? Seriously? I would also have more sympathy if they decided to not process payments for porn at all - at least that would be consistent. But profiting from porn while at the same time enforcing one's own proactive, over-the-top censorship regime does strike me as hypocritical. Furthermore, I have heard of spanking sites that were scrutinized by CCBill and got to keep videos with welts, so I stand by my point that their rules are being applied inconsistently.

As for your point "Who are we to argue that some other group are wrong (even if we find them ridiculously nonsensical)?", that strikes me as particularly odd. Are you suggesting that there is no objective truth when it comes to moral questions and that, therefore, all discussions about such matters are moot? There are people who take such a position, but I am not one of them. I do believe that, based on reason and empirical evidence, a very good case can be made for why adults should be free to make, distribute and watch the videos in question, why this actually promotes the goal of gender equality, and why censorship is unwarranted.

Not that it matters: as I pointed out in my post, society's views on sexual matters usually have little to do with reason and evidence, and much to do with prejudice and moral panic. Things have improved in certain areas like homosexuality, but ignorance about BDSM still prevails. Being a cynic / realist (whichever term you prefer), I have long ago given up any aspirations to change this. But I reserve the right to still rant about it every once in a while, and CCBill stomping on the site of a friend was an opportunity to do that!

Anonymous said...

Me again...

I don't have time for a complete response, Ludwig (for which you're probably grateful, but:

* The Obscene Publications Act isn't the issue, Section 63 of the CJIA would be. But that ignores the whole multiple-jurisdiction issue (I have no idea what the nearest equivalent law in New Zealand might be, for example).

* You took my remark about other people's opinions out of context; the issue here is in the context of doing business, and you really don't get to insist that (e.g.) a Moslem must sell you a beer (although in my experience they often will, happily).

* Apocryphal remarks about other sites that were approved at some time in the past is not inherently evidence of inconsistency; it may be a change of enforcement policy, for example.

* You don't know what legal challenges CCBill has, or has not, had. Nor do I, but quite often prosecutors work with companies like CCBill in order to put pressure on the people they really want to go after.

* I find the notion you expressed that because CCBill accepts some porn, they are somehow obligated to accept all of it is, I'm sorry to say, very problematic. Why shouldn't they accept payments for softcore and not hardcore, for straight and not gay, for vanilla and not kinky? I wouldn't particularly want to do business with them if so, but I don't want to do business with (e.g.) the Roman Catholic Church, either.

Ludwig said...

@ Anonymous: I am always grateful for comments that lead to discussion. No need to worry.

Since you used the term "obscenity" in your first comment, I assumed you were referring to the Obscene Publications Act. Thank you for clarifying that you in fact were trying to refer to Section 63 of the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act. However, I don't see how that applies to any of the content which Pandora had to remove on CCBill's behalf.

Section 63 of the CJIA concerns images portraying "in an explicit and realistic way":

- An act threatening a person’s life
- An act which results (or is likely to result) in serious injury to a person’s anus, breasts or genitals
- An act which involves (or appears to involve) sexual interference with a human corpse
- A person performing (or appearing to perform) an act of intercourse (or oral sex) with an animal (whether dead or alive)

I don't know of any definition which treats the buttocks as part of the anus, and even if there were such a definition, it is highly debatable whether cane welts constitute "serious injury". Ergo, cane welts on the buttocks are not concerned here. At best, it could be argued that the swordfights in clips like The Pirates of the Jolly Kraken portray "an act threatening a person’s life", but that would be an extremely flimsy case in light of the comedic swashbuckler context of the scene and the fact that the fights are not particularly "explicit" or "realistic".

So where, exactly, do you see the videos in question potentially running afoul of Section 63 of the CJIA?

As for the issue of multiple jurisdictions, have you heard of a case where a payment processor was successfully sued in one jurisdiction over adult material published on servers in another jurisdiction?

"Why shouldn't [CCBill] accept payments for softcore and not hardcore, for straight and not gay, for vanilla and not kinky?" The question is, what reason would they have to accept one, but not the other? If we assume that there are no legal issues here (and for all your insinuations, you have not shown that there are any), then it is hard to see a reason for them accepting one kind of porn but not another that does not come down to arbitrariness and discrimination.

All that said, I realise that CCBill are simply mirroring the attitudes of a significant part of society here, which also aren't very consistent or rational when it comes to BDSM. So, my main criticism is not with CCBill. Furthermore, I am not insisting that CCBill should change their decision about Pandora's content. They are free to make that decision, and I am free to criticise it.

To use your analogy: if a Muslim refuses to sell me a beer because of his religion, I won't insist that he sell me a beer. But I reserve the right to voice criticism of his decision. Especially if that very Muslim sells various other alcoholic drinks, but then claims that beer, for some reason that is never made quite clear, is unacceptable.

Donpascual said...

I don't want to add to the exchange of legal arguments.

I am furious about the arbitrary censorship by CCBill. My first impulse, reading Pandora's furious complaints, was avoiding business with CCBill in the future, even conceding that they are functioning smoothly.

However, I am taking out subscriptions to many paysites over the years. There is not way around CCBill. There is iNet once in a while, and paying with the phone bill, occasionally. Let's face it, CCBill is what we call the "Platzhirsch" (The Alpha Animal).

I think, Pandora's decision to give away critical content (what ever may be catagorized as "critical"), instead of spending tiring hours with post-post-processing, may work only, if many of us will be taking out full subscriptions for many months.

I did this for several years, when Paul Kennedy got into difficulties with his "Northern Spanking". Ludwig suggested this kind of support in his blog. My decision was helked greatly by discovering a site with very good content.

Anonymous said...

Me again...

Ludwig, I used the word "obscenity" in its normal sense, not any particular reference to any law.

With regards to the question of whether or not any particular content may or may not violate Section 63, I would respectfully repeat my earlier comment: what you or I or Pandora thinks doesn't matter; what matters is what a prosecutor and ultimately a court thinks. For more on this, compare the outcome of the Doncaster bottom branding case with the outcome of the Spanner case, in particular why two fairly similar acts should result in diametrically opposed results, and the motivation on the prosecutor to appeal a dismissal compared with the defendant's motive to appeal a conviction...

For more on payment processors charged for extraterritorial transactions, check the story of "IServe" aka "Connections USA" and their involvement with a company called Regpay aka Trustbill. Briefly, "Iserve" was a Florida company convicted in New Jersey for laundering money for a Belarus company with servers in (amongst other places) Germany and Hong Kong. Sure, the criminality of that particular material was unarguable (unlike this situation), but the fact is that CCBill is in Arizona and Malta, which means (at the very least) that they are potentially subject to the laws of every US state and territory, and every EU country. Do you know the rules across such a wide range of jurisdictions? I don't, and what is OK today may not be tomorrow if a new law gets passed...

The key point about content, though, in this context, is not "where is the bright-line between legal and not?", but "where does the grey area of potentially illegal start?". And CCBill handles that with a two-fold approach: the first requires that merchants adhere to local, state, federal and international laws, while the second is their own long-stated acceptable use policy (particularly, section 3F) which one might presume is derived from a combination of legal and practical concerns -- the latter being mainly chargebacks and the likelihood of incurring expenses concerned with that type of business.

I would guess that due to the views that much of the public holds with regards to BDSM -- as you noted -- that the number of false chargebacks from BDSM sites is higher than from softcore sites. For more on this, check out the tactics on some of the current copyright trolls, who try to list explicit porn titles in the lawsuit so as to pressure people to settle: people may fight being sued for downloading "College Classics", but fold if the lawsuit publishes their name in connection with "Dirty Anal Granny Threesomes, Vol. 3"!

Stripped of everything else, it's quite possible that the _real_ primary issue motivating CCBill's actions is so that they can show Visa etc. that they have a suitable AUP and they enforce it and therefore Visa (et al.) have no reason to stop accepting charges from them. There's can be no real argument that Pandora's stuff did indeed violate the AUP, including the sword fighting, because "real" sword fighting is clearly extreme violence, and the fact that the swords were plastic doesn't change that the fights "depicted" sword fights, albeit with cheesey props!

Finally, I should emphasize that I don't LIKE what CCBill has done, anymore than I liked what Thatcher did to the UK spanking mag business back in the 1980s. But I don't think they're being capricious or that, stripped of the emotional rhetoric because are people are being denied their preferred type of porn, CCBill is being particularly unreasonable, given that they, not we, decide what is and what is not good business for them.

I would also love to see an alternative to CCBill, but for that to succeed, you'd need to be big enough to push back at Visa and Mastercard and the banks, and that's just not going to happen in the current climate of financial caution.

Ludwig said...

@ Donpascual: It's nice of you that you want to support Pandora's site. But please, do not feel obliged to subscribe "for many months" just because of her recent troubles. I assume that most of us have a limited budget, and no one should spend an unreasonable amount of money on spanking porn.

Any support, no matter how small, is valuable and appreciated. If you go over to Pandora's new site Darker Dreams (where the videos CCBill did not approve of are available for free) and make a small donation, I am sure she will be very grateful, not just because it helps her to keep producing, but also for the moral support. This was my enouragement for supporting Lucy's and Paul's site as well: make a small contribution, they are all appreciated, no need to go overboard.

Ludwig said...

@ Anonymous: Of course, when it comes to determining whether a particular content violates Section 63, it does not matter what Pandora, you or I think, but what a court thinks. This is trivial. However, the question I am asking you is: why, given the letter of the law and given the specific content of the videos we are talking about (The Pirates of the Jolly Kraken, The Final Test etc.), do you think that a court could come to the verdict that these videos violate Section 63? Presumably, you must have a reason for believing that a court could plausibly come to this decision, otherwise you would not have brought up Section 63 of the CJIA as being a potential issue.

Since you seem intent on casting doubt on whether the videos in question are legal under Section 63, which concerns not just Pandora, a good friend of mine, but also any UK-based readers of mine who downloaded the videos, I would appreciate it if you had a concrete foundation for your remarks. And if you don't, I would ask you to reconsider whether idle speculation about such matters is a good idea. The BDSM community already has more than its fair share of confusion, fear and unfounded rumours, so I think we should make sure that any remarks questioning the legality of such-and-such are well-founded.

On the matter of multiple jurisdictions, I asked you if you knew a case where a payment processor was successfully sued in one jurisdiction over adult material published on servers in another jurisdiction. You replied by bringing up a case of money-laundering. Again, that did not really answer the question. And again, I think we should be careful to not needlessly introduce comparisons with rather more dramatic legal issues.

Whether Pandora's videos were in violation of the CCBill acceptable use policy is a different matter. I'm not sure it is worthwhile musing about that - the very point of an AUP is to have a series of "rubber paragraphs" which give a company the biggest possible room for interpretation. "Extreme violence" is such a vague term that one can choose to apply it, or not to apply it, to any number of things.

Personally, I am not inclined to follow your reasoning that, because real swordfights are extreme violence, any depiction of swordfighting, no matter how cheesy, is also extreme violence. If things really were that simple, then countless swashbuckler movies rated PG-13 would contain "extreme violence", and I don't think that that is an assessment many people would go along with.

Finally, let me clarify that I never claimed that CCBill are being unreasonable business-wise. Indeed, their policy makes perfect sense business-wise, because they can easily afford to alienate a few producers of BDSM porn, particularly small ones like Pandora, by being over-cautious on the public image and legal side of things. However, from the fact that their policy makes sense on a business level, it obviously does not follow that we have to condone it, or the societal prejudices it is based on, on a wider ethical level.

I think we are in agreement on that last point. And, as I tried to emphasize already, my main criticism isn't with companies like CCBill, anyway, but with the societal framework of hypcrisy and prejudice (which they reinforce, but don't create).

der_Wolf said...

Wow...I checked out Pandora's site every once in a while, and wanted to re-join for a month, because a lot of new content has been put up since the last time I was there, but I completely missed that "final test" had to be taken down...
What a bad joke. If "the final test" is "too severe" then what about the likes of Clubdom and Fullforce Spanking to name but a few?
Of all the severe scenes out there the only one that is really beautifully filmed and still rather tame in comparison is being censored.
I don't get it...

Lea said...

That all sounds absolutely ridiculous and I can see why Pandora would be upset about having to edit and delete things off completely. Good for her for making another site and still releasing the video you all put so much effort into.