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PayPal is no pal to free expression

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Two weeks ago, PayPal shuttered the account of the Free Speech Union, a London-based organization founded by social commentator Toby Young to advocate for free expression. PayPal also closed Young’s personal account and that of his news and opinion website, The Daily Sceptic

On Tuesday, PayPal reinstated the accounts, but only after sustained public criticism of the company’s apparently viewpoint-discriminatory actions.

“Forgive me if I don’t leap for joy,” Young told The Telegraph newspaper. “The last two weeks have been a nightmare as I’ve scrabbled to try to stop The Daily Sceptic and Free Speech Union going under. PayPal’s software was embedded in all our payment systems, so the sudden closure of our accounts was an existential threat.”

In typically murky fashion, PayPal initially gave Young no reason for the bans other than to say that the accounts violated the company’s vague acceptable use policy. However, a PayPal spokesperson told the press, “Achieving the balance between protecting the ideals of tolerance, diversity and respect for people of all backgrounds and upholding the values of free expression and open dialogue can be difficult, but we do our best to achieve it.” Other reports indicate PayPal’s decision to close the accounts had to do with alleged COVID-19 misinformation.

As you would expect of any free speech group (including FIRE), the Free Speech Union has defended controversial speakers. After all, it is unpopular and dissenting speech — not speech aligned with majority opinion — that most needs protection.

The Free Speech Union incident is only the latest in PayPal’s long history of speech-chilling actions against its users. 

One would hope PayPal understands that defending a speaker’s right to freedom of speech, or defending free speech as a cultural value, is not the same as promoting a speaker’s underlying views. Or, at a minimum, that PayPal as a payment system shouldn’t take it upon itself to be the arbiter of allowable speech.

Even if the Free Speech Union were advocating controversial political views, that shouldn’t matter. Whether in the U.K. or the U.S., payment processing companies like PayPal (and its subsidiary Venmo) are not bound by the First Amendment, but there are important reasons these companies shouldn’t discriminate against users based on their views, as FIRE explains in a statement issued today: 

Access to online payment systems is crucial for the innumerable individuals and organizations that rely on financial support for their expressive activity. It’s essential to content creators’ ability to earn a living, to websites’ and other businesses’ ability to raise revenue, to fundraising by political candidates and nonprofit organizations, and to everyday Americans’ ability to consume content and support causes they believe in. When payment processing services act as political hall monitors or moral arbiters deciding what speech and viewpoints are out of bounds, they present a grave threat to free expression.

As the Electronic Frontier Foundation notes, because a small number of companies dominate the market for online payment processing, they have tremendous power to control the speech environment by turning off the financial spigot for users who express disfavored views or wade into controversial subject matter.

The Free Speech Union incident is only the latest in PayPal’s long history of speech-chilling actions against its users. 

In May, PayPal suspended the accounts of independent media outlets Consortium News and MintPress, both of which have been a source of skeptical reporting about the Russia-Ukraine conflict. One month later, PayPal shut down writer Colin Wright’s account shortly after Etsy banned him for selling merchandise that “promotes, supports, or glorifies hatred or violence towards protected groups.” Wright is a critic of transgender activism, and his merchandise included text like “Reality’s Last Stand” (the name of his Substack site) and “Defender of Reality.” 

Groups like the ACLU and EFF have criticized PayPal’s lack of transparency and failure to provide due process to users whose accounts are frozen or closed.

PayPal’s greatest hits on free speech also include suspending WikiLeaks’ account after the organization released diplomatic cables and warning an ebook distributor to remove certain works of erotic fiction.

Other absurd actions appear to be a result of PayPal’s reliance on poorly tailored algorithms. For instance, PayPal suspended a user for buying a t-shirt from Isis… the heavy metal band (which formed years before the terrorist group rose to prominence).

While PayPal ultimately restored Young’s accounts, there is little reason to believe this would have happened without significant public pushback. What about ordinary users who cannot attract the level of attention and support mustered by the Free Speech Union?

Groups like the ACLU and EFF have criticized PayPal’s lack of transparency and failure to provide due process to users whose accounts are frozen or closed — including giving users detailed notice of the alleged policy violation and a timely and meaningful opportunity to appeal the decision. When Colin Wright sought more information about why he was banned, for example, all PayPal told him was that an attorney or law enforcement officer would need to “submit a legal subpoena.”

After PayPal reinstated the accounts of the Free Speech Union and The Daily Sceptic, a company spokesman said, “PayPal is dedicated to providing safe and affordable financial services to people of all backgrounds with a diversity of views, and we are a strong supporter of freedom of expression and open dialogue.”

That’s a welcome sentiment. The question is whether it will actually guide PayPal’s actions going forward.

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