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2 September 2022

Why OnlyFans wants us to regulate the internet

Keily Blair, chief operating and strategy officer of the controversial creator platform, on why she's a big believer in the Online Safety Bill.

By Emma Haslett

Is Keily Blair the only person in UK tech who isn’t heavily critical of the Online Safety Bill? The legislation, which at its last weigh-in was a mammoth 230 pages long, is hated equally by the companies it’s supposed to be regulating and those it’s supposed to be protecting – from Facebook owner Meta, which has warned it “risks people’s private messages being constantly surveilled and censored”, to sex workers, who are concerned it will push them offline, removing their ability to screen clients before they meet them.

The bill is so reviled, even those designing it have all but given up on it. Its final reading in parliament was pushed back by three months, ostensibly because a new prime minister might want to make changes – but there were rumours it might quietly disappear in the meantime. In an editorial for the Spectator in July, the Conservative MP and former Brexit secretary David Davis warned it posed a danger to free speech and accused it of being “jam-packed with unintended consequences”.

But Blair, the chief operating and strategy officer of the British platform OnlyFans, is positively ebullient about it. For her, its main drawback is that it didn’t happen quickly enough.

“I wish it had happened faster,” she says. “I think the government is doing a really great job in terms of bringing it in. I think it’s incredibly important. I think it’s necessary.”

Blair, 39, is a native Dubliner who moved to London for law school and never went back. She joined the company at the beginning of this year after leaving her position as head of cyber, privacy and data at the law firm Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe, where OnlyFans was a client. Her hiring was part of a strategic shake-up that saw OnlyFans’ male founder, Tim Stokely, replaced with a female chief executive, Amrapali Gan, formerly the site’s chief marketing and communications officer.

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We met in the plush surroundings of Soho Works, the co-working space on Dean Street in London’s Soho where OnlyFans has its office. Given the area’s seedy history, it felt like an appropriate location. Although Blair was at pains to remind me that the platform is designed for all creatives – “we have chefs, musicians, comedians, everybody else” – it was users in the adult sphere who were the quickest to discover its advantages when it launched in 2016. And as people’s lives went online during lockdown, OnlyFans became synonymous with “not safe for work” content.

[See also: The real problem with Instagram is not the photo vs video debate]

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The idea is that, instead of relying on advertising revenue, creators on OnlyFans charge a subscription to “fans” who really want to see their content. Fans can also send “tips” or request custom content, so Big Mouth Bella, for instance, a young woman who makes videos in which she “taste-tests” different foods, can create a one-off video if, say, one of her fans would like to see her eating a pineapple (and is willing to pay for the privilege). OnlyFans then takes a 20 per cent cut of the money she charges.

Given the set-up, the platform made sense for independent sex workers operating on the internet, and has received its fair share of criticism over its melding of the influencer economy with online pornography.

But Blair is adamant that OnlyFans helps users make more money than other platforms, and not just for sex work. “For every dollar we earn, creators earn four,” she says. “That’s real money for real people doing real things – not like a lot of big tech companies, where it’s the shareholders that are making the profits, and the individuals who are creating the content are not seeing money in their back pocket.” It even has a legal team on-hand to help creators if their content is copied or reposted elsewhere.

This focus has drawn celebrity fans, too. In July, Sami Sheen, the 18-year-old daughter of the model Denise Richards, was criticised when it emerged she had opened an account. Richards defended her. “My daughter got a lot of backlash for opening the account,” she said in an interview with the LA-based TV station KTLA. “I had heard of OnlyFans but I wasn’t educated on what OnlyFans was and once I started to learn about it… You own your content. The other sites, they can sell your content.

“We all post pictures with ourselves with bathing suits on Instagram and some of the other sites [and] there’s no difference other than you actually own the content,” she added.

In 2021, OnlyFans raised eyebrows when it announced plans to ban adult content. “We broke the internet,” says Blair. “It was front-page news for two weeks, everywhere.” Rumours suggested the move was to entice investors during a funding round, while others indicated it was at the behest of its banking partners. Detractors accused the company of abandoning the very people who had built its popularity. Either way, after vociferous protests by its members, it backed down. “We got a huge groundswell of support,” she says. “That was why as a company we were able to say actually, that’s not the right call.”

Instead, OnlyFans doubled down on its over-18s policy and strengthened its controls further. Those wishing to become content creators must now undergo a rigorous verification process, in which they are required to present nine forms of ID (ten in the US), including name, address, bank details, biometric scan, social media accounts, and government ID. Even “fans” can’t subscribe to anything until they have provided credit card details, which helps it to ensure that no-one under 18 can access content. “If you’re not 18, you ain’t coming in,” says Blair.

The company uses a dual system of AI and humans to approve these applications, and also to moderate content. “I’ve seen some really interesting fake IDs,” says Blair. “I saw someone holding up a tube of toothpaste once and trying to use the barcode as being like a fake ID. You see some incredibly crazy things. And then you see some good ones as well, which are actually harder to detect.”

[See also: We should fear TikTok’s influence on news media]

The system is designed to make it all but impossible, for instance, for sex traffickers or child pornographers to use it. Blair says the company acts quickly when it receives information. “’Lolita’ is a really good example of a word that was flagged to us by an external party as being something that we should be concerned about [when it comes to child abuse images],” she explains. “We discovered that some people were porting in content from other social media platforms that included that word, and we then did a review of all the accounts that required a forced username change and reviewed all the content on the accounts. And that was within three days of the issue being raised to us by one of our partners.”

OnlyFans has been criticised in the past for failing to prevent under-aged people from making adult content on the platform. Keily concedes that some may slip through the net, despite officially only allowing adults to use it. “Nobody’s perfect,” she says. “If I was to sit here and be like, hey, there’s never going to be a single issue ever in the entire history of OnlyFans, I would expect you to call bullshit.”

Blair hopes the Online Safety Bill, which imposes a “duty of care” on social media platforms, will bring her rivals up to the same standard the company believes it upholds.

“We want everyone to be as safe as we are. Anything that pushes people in that direction is a good thing for society,” she says. But now the bill has been pushed back, companies may be slower to act. “I’m disappointed because some people need a stick to make changes. Unfortunately, the law often is that stick.”

What did she make of those accusations that the legislation would suppress freedom of speech? “Freedom of expression and online safety aren’t a binary choice,” she says. “The reality is that freedom of expression has always been curtailed by the law. There’s always been boundaries in place from a legal standpoint to protect around what we think is acceptable in a modern society to say and not. That’s why we have rules around hate speech.

“People often say things and do things on the internet that they would only do behind a keyboard,” she adds. “People feel emboldened to behave in certain ways sometimes. It’s right to have the same protection online as you do walking down the street.”

[See also: Bruce Daisley: “Twitter wasn’t set up to be about anger and rage”]