Millions of paywalls impede scrutiny of OnlyFans

A logo for OnlyFans is seen in this illustration picture

By Linda So, Andrew R.C. Marshall and Jason Szep

(Reuters) - It is difficult to measure the extent of child sexual abuse images and videos on the porn-driven website OnlyFans, investigators and experts say.

The only publicly available statistics are provided by OnlyFans itself. Under federal law, U.S.-based electronic service providers – including social media platforms and porn sites – must report any suspected child abuse to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC), a nonprofit designated by Congress to serve as a clearinghouse for such reports. As a UK-based company, OnlyFans isn’t legally obligated to file reports to NCMEC but says it does so voluntarily.

OnlyFans says it immediately removes any suspected child sexual abuse material it detects and makes a report to NCMEC’s CyberTipline. In 2023, the company made 347 such CyberTipline reports “out of hundreds of millions of posts,” an OnlyFans spokesperson said. “This is testament to the rigorous safety controls OnlyFans has in place.”

Much of this suspect material “does not turn out to be CSAM” – child sexual abuse material – “and/or are duplicate images or videos,” OnlyFans says on its website.

But five specialists in online child sexual abuse told Reuters the actual amount of CSAM on OnlyFans is difficult to verify independently due to the existence of individual paywalls for many of its 3.2 million creators.

“It’s not just one paywall. It’s a paywall for each and every contributor,” said Trey Amick, director of forensic consultants at Magnet Forensics Inc, a Canada-based company that supplies law enforcement agencies with tools to search for child sexual abuse material.

The information police can typically get from an account, without paying for a subscription or enlisting OnlyFans’ help, is a website address, a non-explicit photo of the creator and some text describing the account.

“Beyond that, it’s extremely difficult to acquire content that’s hosted behind the paywalls of OnlyFans,” said Amick.

Once police seek OnlyFans’ help in a case, the company provides them all the information they need, including account details, content and direct messages, the OnlyFans spokesperson said. “Police investigators do not need to subscribe to content,” she said.

The spokesperson also noted that NCMEC has “full access” to the site behind its paywalls.

NCMEC said that access began in late 2023 and was “limited” to OnlyFans accounts reported to its CyberTipline or connected to a missing child case. Beyond that, it added, NCMEC “does not proactively monitor, moderate, or actively seek to review content at scale” behind OnlyFans’ paywalls, or on any other website.

In 2021, OnlyFans appointed an “independent third party” monitor, Michael Ward, “to provide even greater transparency into our industry-leading safety measures,” its website said.

Ward, a former U.S. Justice Department prosecutor who now works at the law firm Baker Botts, was tasked with analyzing and assessing OnlyFans’ safety controls, the website said. OnlyFans didn’t respond to questions about him.

Contacted by Reuters, Ward said he couldn’t comment or confirm that he performed the role OnlyFans said he did.

(So and Szep reported from Washington and Marshall from London. Editing by Julie Marquis)