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Artillery Row

Financial censorship

The new front in the war on free speech

The Free Speech Union has been demonetised by US payments company PayPal for daring to stand up for free speech and freedom of expression. PayPal UK, the company whose Twitter banner proudly proclaims that it is “open for all”, has now permanently shut the accounts of the Free Speech Union, as well as the personal account of the organisation’s co-founder and General Secretary, Toby Young, and Toby’s news website, the Daily Sceptic, without prior warning, meaningful explanation or recourse to a proper appeals process. 

So how did we get here — to a world in which a financial intermediary like PayPal can so casually close the account of the Free Speech Union, an organisation set up to defend people’s right to free speech, and that does so without taking sides on the issues that those people are speaking about? 

The fact is that the relatively recent digitalisation of financial transactions has placed a vast amount of power in the hands of financial services companies like payment processors, banks, online platforms and credit companies like Visa and Mastercard. It is “FinTech” that now owns and controls the technical, algorithmic means to move virtual money seamlessly around the world in real-time. For a while, the risk that these powers might be exercised to completely cut off and shut up groups, organisations and people seemed entirely abstract. More recently, though, we’ve seen governments leaning on these companies to act in ways beneficial to state interests.

In 2019, for instance, the Russian government froze bank accounts linked to opposition politician Alexei Navalny (Reuters); in February 2022, Canada froze the bank accounts of the mostly peaceful truckers protesting against the vaccine mandates with no due process, appeals process or court order necessary (Mail); then, in early 2022, cross-border payment system SWIFT took the unprecedented move to cut Russia’s central bank from its global financial messaging service (Telegraph).

But that was all at the behest of governments. What’s new is financial services companies like PayPal throwing their weight about and attempting to influence what kind of speech is or isn’t acceptable on the basis of their own, decidedly woke corporate values.

Does that mean the withdrawal of financial services from people and organisations that express dissenting opinions on those topics is the new front in the ongoing war against free speech? Sarah McLellan, writing in Spectator Australia, certainly thinks so. Citing Jesse Powell, Chief Executive of Kraken Bitcoin Exchange, she argues that “the traditional financial system has essentially been weaponised” and that losing free access to funding streams on account of one’s political views is tantamount to losing free speech.

PayPal undoubtedly has form

PayPal undoubtedly has form in that regard. Earlier this year, Rolling Stone contributing editor Matt Taibbi published a story about how the company has been selectively de-platforming alternative media sites that published stories contradicting some of the West’s reporting of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Among those to have been banned were Mint Press News, a left-wing web-based outlet, and Consortium News, founded by the late Associated Press investigative reporter Robert Parry in 1995 as one of the web’s very first independent, reader-funded news outlets.

More recently, we’ve seen sites that raise perfectly lawful questions about Covid vaccines also getting demonetised by PayPal, including the U.K. Medical Freedom Alliance. (As in Toby’s case, Liz Evans, the head of the UKMFA, had her personal PayPal account closed at the same time.) Law-or-fiction, a site run by lawyers and dedicated to helping citizens understand their rights and how they may have been affected as a result of the UK government’s response to Covid-19, suffered the same fate a few weeks ago. UsforThem, a parents’ group that fought to keep schools open during the pandemic announced just this week that its account had been shut down by PayPal due to “the nature of its activities” (Telegraph). And then there’s Conservative group Moms for Liberty, and the personal website of gender ideology critic Colin Wright, and… I could go on. 

As Matt Taibbi explains, “going after cash is a big jump from simply deleting speech and actually has a much bigger chilling effect”. This is especially true when it comes to alternative media or grassroots campaigning, where “money has long been notoriously tight”, and the loss of a few thousand pounds here or there can have a major effect on a project, website, podcast or whatever else.

Up until now, companies like PayPal, GoFundMe, Patreon and CrowdJustice have ‘only’ demonetised individuals and groups whose views they disapprove of. But “open for all” PayPal has just decided to close the account of the Free Speech Union, an organisation that defends people’s right to free speech, without taking sides on the issues they’re speaking about.

Is this now the benchmark for all subsequent forms of financial censorship? If so, then as Toby Young pointed out on GB News the night the story broke, PayPal has just significantly – and singlehandedly – “narrowed the Overton Window”, ensuring that “there are now certain issues you aren’t allowed to defend people for expressing sceptical opinions about”.

That’s why, as the switch to a cashless society gathers speed, the Government will need to put laws in place to protect people from being punished by companies like PayPal for the expression of dissenting views. But what sorts of laws? “The challenge,” as Fraser Nelson points out, will be to make the case that “protecting diversity should also mean diversity of opinion” (Telegraph).

One possible solution to Fraser’s “challenge” was outlined by Toby Young in a comment piece for the Telegraph: passing legislation “to make it illegal for financial services companies to discriminate against customers on the basis of their political beliefs, provided they’re within the law”. The Equality Act 2010 does of course provide some protection in that regard, making it unlawful for companies to discriminate against customers on the basis of their political beliefs (in most circumstances). But like most Big Tech companies, PayPal isn’t within scope because it’s headquartered in Luxembourg.

A few days after the story broke, it emerged that questions were being raised in governmental circles regarding PayPal’s actions, and, just as importantly, the regulatory environment in which companies like PayPal presently operate. According to the Sunday Express, for instance, “politicians have reacted with fury to PayPal’s actions, with one Conservative peer saying she had ‘never seen so much cross-party outrage’ over the move.” The paper went on to note that the financial services company “faces a political battle, with politicians lining up to call for action against the US company.”

Specifically, dozens of MPs and peers from across the political divide — including 21 Tory MPs and 15 Tory peers as well as four crossbench peers, a Labour peer and a Labour MP — have now written to Business Secretary Jacob Rees-Mogg urging the government to hold PayPal to account. In their letter, the politicians point out that the “common theme” among the organisations and individuals that have had their accounts closed — the Free Speech Union, Daily Sceptic, Law or Fiction, and UsforThem — is that they are all prominent “champions of free speech” who have expressed “critical, non-conforming views on lockdown policies”. Understood in that context, they suggest, it is more than a little difficult “to avoid construing PayPal’s actions as an orchestrated, politically motivated move to silence critical or dissenting views within the UK.”

This is strong stuff, and suggests that there’s a real determination across both Houses of Parliament to explore the possibility of developing a legislative mechanism capable of preventing Big Tech companies headquartered outside the UK from censoring people or groups in this country for the expression of legal but dissenting views (or, as in the case of the Free Speech Union, for simply defending those who express legal but dissenting views).

Let’s hope our legislators can come up with an effective mechanism sooner rather than later. As we hurtle towards a cashless society, the creeping trend of Big Tech platforms financially censoring groups or individuals who express dissenting views needs to be checked before it starts to become institutionally normalised.

And by the way, the issues at stake here go way beyond the politics of left or right, socialism or liberalism, Labour or Conservative. It doesn’t matter who you are or what you believe — financial bullying has no place in a Western liberal democracy.

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