Visa draws a hard line on child porn

The giant credit-card company Visa sponsors the Olympics, the National Football League, and NASCAR. "It's everywhere you want to be," proclaims its ads.

But now, Visa has taken an unpublicized stance on where it doesn't want to be: on Internet sites selling child pornography and other depictions of sexually deviant behavior.

Over the past year, Visa has set up a system to identify purveyors who use Visa to sell illegal pornography. This means the card issuer is reporting sites with illegal photos and videos to the global police forces responsible for enforcing child-porn laws.

Visa is also requiring the 7,000 US financial institutions that are members of the Visa association to register "high-risk merchants" who process adult content and use the Visa card. If the institutions don't comply, they risk losing their Visa relationship - a threat already facing a Russian bank.

After searching more than 1 million Web pages a day for the past year, Visa estimates that 80 percent of the 400 websites it has identified as child porn have either been shut down by law enforcement or have had their Visa privileges terminated. In fact, the company says pedophiles in chat rooms are complaining that it is increasingly difficult to find websites oriented toward them.

"This is a powerful new tool to assist law enforcement in these crimes, to eliminate a resource for individuals to use, download, and purchase pornography," says Reuben Rodriguez, director of the exploited-child unit at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

The use of credit cards to buy child porn is relatively new. At first, many pedophiles traded images over the Internet in chat rooms. However, more recently, websites have sprung up selling access for a fee. Only last month, rock star Pete Townshend admitted he had used a credit card to join a child-porn site. He was questioned and released by British police. In addition, police forces around the world are still combing the files of a Dallas couple who sold hundreds of thousands of subscriptions to child-porn websites. According to people involved in tracking child porn, officials will soon begin another round of arrests.

Long-standing cooperation

Visa and MasterCard, the two leading credit-card companies, have long cooperated with the FBI and US Customs to make cases against buyers and sellers of child porn. "Whether money laundering or child porn, our rules absolutely require our cards to be used legally," says Sharon Gamsin, a vice president of MasterCard in Purchase, N.Y. "If we find a site is doing something illegal, that site gets thrown off our system."

However, if MasterCard is conducting any programs similar to Visa's in searching for illegal sites, it won't discuss them.

Visa's own approach began in late 2001. It realized the use of adult entertainment on the Internet was growing and wanted to make sure its card was not being used for criminal activities. It hired a Chicago-based consultant, InteCap, which was familiar with new technologies to search the Internet. InteCap, which has former law-enforcement officers on its staff, suggested a meeting with the FBI and Mr. Rodriguez's organization.

Visa quickly realized it was impossible for the company itself to monitor the 5 billion Web pages on the Internet. Thus, Visa asked InteCap to search the Internet for it. The firm monitors 1 million pages a day.

"We have a website profile and run sophisticated Web crawlers and spidering techniques to search for child pornography and someone using the Visa network," says Michael Stannard, a managing director in the London offices of InteCap.

The information is turned over to Mr. Rodriguez's group, which runs a cybertip line. The tips are turned over to the FBI, US Customs, and postal authorities.

"Yes, we get a lot of cooperation from companies like that," says Barry Maddox, a spokesman for the FBI's Baltimore office, where an Innocent Images unit works to catch child pornographers.

Other targets

Child porn isn't the only thing Visa is targeting. The company has also decided it does not want its brand to be used to purchase Internet photos and videos involving rape and bestiality. And it has banned the use of Visa on a hate site.

"We look at it on a case-by-case basis," says Casey Watson, director of global corporate relations for Visa International.

Then there's the high-risk merchant program, which is designed to protect the payment system from disputes, fraud, and illegal transactions, says Martin Elliot, director of corporate risk at Visa USA. The program requires every US financial institution to register these merchants - such as adult websites - and identify their physical locations. It's now thinking of expanding this program globally to all its 21,000 member institutions. "We tell them, 'Know your merchants,' " says Mr. Elliot.

First Amendment lawyers say this is a relatively new area of law - that is, when censorship involves private individuals or companies. "It's evolving how the First Amendment applies to private companies," says Lee Tien, a lawyer with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit organization in San Francisco. "I think it's fair to say what Visa is doing is not violating the First Amendment."

But he also says there is some "murkiness" about Visa's activity. He worries that Visa or other financial organizations will have the power to influence what appears on the Internet under the guise of protecting their trademark. "The laws were never intended to permit this," he says. Visa's Watson, however, says the company checks any gray areas with its legal staff.

So far, Watson thinks Visa's plan has been successful. "We just want to put these people out of business permanently," she says. But she's also a realist, noting that criminals are always trying something new.

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