Berlaymont, the EU Commission headquarter (Photo by Thierry Monasse/Getty Images)
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The growing threat of financial censorship

The EU is clamping down on social media

The IMF’s managing director, Kristalina Georgieva, revealed that the UN’s major financial agency doesn’t like people using cash and wants to “change that preference”. Speaking at the IMF/World Bank Annual Meeting, Ms Georgieva bemoaned what she described as digital “hesitancy”. The IMF’s “capacity development experts on financial inclusion often see strong preference for cash”, she said, “even when viable electronic alternatives exist, like e-wallets, mobile money”. Shaking her head and frowning, she went on to ask: “Why are consumers not using these products?”

Are things about to get even worse?

It’s not rocket science, Ms Georgieva. People are concerned that digital banking will make it easier for them to be cut off from their money if ever a government — or online payment provider in thrall to the idea of “stakeholder capitalism” — decrees that their lawful political opinions, dissenting views or deeply held religious convictions constitute “hate speech” or “misinformation”. Nor can this concern be dismissed as the paranoid fantasy of a small group of tinfoil hat wearing conspiracy theorists. As we hurtle towards a cashless economy, cases of financial censorship are starting to crop up with alarming frequency.

In February 2022, for instance, Canada froze the bank accounts of anti-vaccine mandate protestors, with Deputy Canadian PM Chrystia Freeland making clear that banks would also be asked to freeze the personal accounts of anyone linked with the protests, with no due process, no appeals process and no court order necessary. Online donations platform GoFundMe then withheld donations specifically to Canadian truckers protesting against vaccine mandates in what came to be known as the Freedom Convoy.

Around the same time, PayPal de-platformed left-wing alternative media sites Mint Publishing and Consortium News for publishing stories that questioned the rationale for the West’s support of Ukraine following Russia’s invasion. Over the summer, PayPal and Etsy deplatformed the evolutionary biologist and gender critical writer Colin Wright for expressing his belief in biological reality

Last month, PayPal shut down the accounts of the Free Speech Union and UsforThemUK, a parents’ group that fought to keep schools open during the pandemic, due to “the nature of its activities. On both occasions it did so without prior warning, meaningful explanation or recourse to a proper appeals process. More recently, Ko-Fi, an online platform that allows users to sell their work and raise donations, removed a number of accounts belonging to feminists and feminist organisations due to their gender critical views.

Are things about to get even worse? According to financial journalist Robert Kogon, the EU’s recently passed Digital Services Act (DSA) makes that a distinct possibility.

The DSA is designed to function in combination with the EU’s so-called Code of Practice on Disinformation: the Code requires signatories to censor what the European Commission defines as disinformation on pain of massive fines, whilst the enforcement mechanism (i.e., the fines) is established by the DSA. 

Because the legislation specifically targets “very large online platforms or very large online search engines”, it might appear as if digital financial service providers like PayPal are beyond its purview. Not so, says Kogon. The Commission has been arguing for some time that “actions to defund disinformation should be broadened by the participation of players active in the online monetisation value chain, such as online e-payment services, e-commerce platforms and relevant crowdfunding/donation systems”.

The rationale here seems to be that because people who post so-called “disinformation” on, say, Twitter are also increasingly going to be users of various other financial service platforms, it is possible to target them in two ways: first, by censoring their material as and when it appears; and second, by demonetising them so that they can’t produce any more such material.

If you thought 2022 was a bad year for financial censorship, just wait

It’s that second possibility which seems to fascinate the Commission. The first “commitment” in its strengthened code of practice is dedicated to the “demonetisation of disinformation and improving the politics and systems which determine the eligibility of content to be monetised”.

Just nine days after the passage of the DSA through the European Parliament, the EC issued a “Call for interest to become a Signatory” of the Code. In the past, signatories have almost always been entities like advertisers, internet service providers, social media companies and search engines. What types of actors is the Commission particularly hoping to sign up to the Code this time? “Providers whose services may be used to monetise disinformation (E-payment services, e-commerce platforms, crowd-funding/donation systems).”

The problem, of course, is that once financial services providers have signed up to the European Commission’s Code and committed to, as the Code puts it, “exchang[ing] best practices and strengthen[ing] cooperation with relevant players … in the online monetisation value system”, their systems will all be finely tuned and ready to impose the Commission’s model of financial censorship on the entire world, including the UK. This will happen at breakneck, speed too — not only does the strengthened Code contain a total of 44 “commitments” that its new signatories will be expected to make, but it also contains a deadline for meeting them: namely, six months after signing up.

If you thought 2022 was a bad year for financial censorship, just wait until you see an organisation like PayPal roll up its sleeves and get stuck into meeting its legally binding “commitments”, as dictated by the European Commission, in 2023.

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