Banks crack down on websites peddling porn

In an attempt to ban websites trading in images of sexual violence, racism or terrorism, the banking industry has upgraded its guidelines for the kind of websites its members should take credit card payment from.

The new guidelines, which are advisory rather than binding, were issued earlier this summer by the Association for Payment Clearing Services (Apacs), the umbrella body that represents the major banks and buildings societies.

The extended Apacs guidelines were introduced after a Westminster Hall debate in parliament earlier this summer which voiced concerns about the availability of violent sexual images on the Internet.

Among those who called for a ban on sites promoting violent pornography was the family of Jane Longhurst who was murdered in Brighton by Graham Coutts, a keen consumer of necrophiliac websites.

The Home Office's response has been that there is a lack of international agreement on what constitute obscene, and therefore illegal, images. Most of the sites carrying such images are registered abroad and not subject to UK law.

The new Apacs guidelines state: "Banks provide facilities to Internet merchants that enable them to accept card payments for content and merchandise. We deplore the abuse of these facilities on ethical, legal and sound business grounds.

"Banks will not knowingly do business with Internet sites that sell content/merchandise inciting, advocating or perpetuating activities such as child pornography, racism, terrorism and violence against persons, including scenes of sexual violence."

The ban on dealing with sites selling illegal child pornography is already in force.

The guidelines do not offer a definition of what constitutes "violence against persons".

"We are not setting ourselves up as moral arbiters," said Sandra Quinn, a spokeswoman for Apacs, "But we have to be sure we are doing all we can about preventing the spread of such extreme images.

"We had no objections from our members on the grounds of whether this was censorship. But we don't want to be any more prescriptive. It's a grey area."

She added that Apacs guidelines cover UK-based companies. It is up to individual banks to withdraw services from sites they believe are in breach of the guidelines.

Different banks already have different policies towards licensing their credit card brands.

American Express, for example, does not allow adult pornography sites to use its cards for payments.

This latest development is reflective of far-reaching global fears that the power and influence of the Internet, combined with the purchasing power of international credit cards, is fuelling the traffic in outlawed obscenities. The US has already seen the rise of the Christian right pressing financial institutions to cut their commercial links with adult pornographic sites. Now the spotlight is on our own national institutions, to see exactly how far they are prepared to go in the cracking down on violent pornography.

Sources: Guardian Unlimited, The Register,

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