It’s not just censorship by big tech that conservatives need to be wary of. They also need to worry about being de-platformed by payment processors like PayPal.
Recall that PayPal recently threatened to impose a $2,500 fine on anybody accused of spreading so-called “misinformation.”
But the key thing to understand, according to Corynne McSherry, the legal director at the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFEF), is that “it’s not just PayPal.”
“Several of the kind of major payment processors have been playing an increasing role in policing online speech. This actually goes back more than a decade. It actually started with Visa and Mastercard shut off WikiLeaks back in the day,” she told Fox News in an interview this week.
This is true, though WikiLeaks reportedly survived anyway thanks to Bitcoin:
In 2010 Visa, Mastercard and PayPal stopped donations to #WikiLeaks to censor it.
— Thomas Shelby (@XrPimpin) September 15, 2022
But while WikiLeaks survived being de-platformed, many don’t.
“Say [you get deplatformed] in December, which is your big fundraising time. That’s life or death for you. That can mean you will not survive because there’s no money coming in, because most people use Visa, Mastercard, or PayPal. These are huge platforms. So when they make decisions about whether they’re going to process payments for you, that could mean your business is going under, your non-profit is going under,” McSherry explained.
She added that while “there are alternatives out there,” processors like PayPal, Visa, and Mastercard “are sort of behemoths in this space, and if they cut you off, suddenly the world gets a lot smaller.”
Granted, sometimes de-platformings are legitimate, such as when they involve fraud. What concerns activists like McSherry is when de-platformings are based on content.
“Making those kinds of decisions just based on the content of your site — I worry about that a lot. I think it’s pretty arbitrary and capricious,” she remarked.
That said, she claimed that the de-platformings are essentially bipartisan, in that they happen to people of all political stripes.
“You can find anecdotes from across the political spectrum, and across this kind of content spectrum, and I don’t think I’ve seen any empirical research that’s been persuasive to me about that any particular site gets targeted. I think it’s all over the place,” she said.
Is it really, though? Conservatives would no doubt argue that they’re de-platformed and silenced far more than liberals.
Chase shuts down personal bank account of proud outspoken Trump supporter. A jolting wake up call. https://t.co/dLm85UOAgS
— Bo Snerdley (@BoSnerdley) February 11, 2019
McSherry continued by comparing the behavior of America’s payment processors to the behavior of Twitter.
“And it kind of takes us back to the Twitter situation, which is we don’t have consistency, we don’t have consistent rules, and that makes it extremely difficult for people to operate, because they don’t know what the rules are. And they don’t know how to function,” she said.
Similarly, she maintained, America’s payment processors “are largely unaccountable.”
“So the only way to pressure them is to sort of make noise about them. But it’s very, very difficult. And if it’s you against PayPal, Visa, or Mastercard, they’re bigger than you. Unless you’re a really, really big organization or business, they don’t meet you, and so they can make their own unilateral decision, and you don’t have a lot of choices,” she said.
“I feel like for a decade I’ve been watching content moderation at the platform level go terribly awry. And now more and more we’re watching the same problems at sort of the infrastructure level, in other parts of the internet stack. There needs to be much more of a movement and much more visibility to pressure infrastructure providers to basically stay neutral,” she added.
Dovetailing the discussion back to the organization for which she works, EFF, McSherry noted that the group just “launched a statement” recently speaking out against infrastructure providers and payment processors policing content and speech.
Internet infrastructure services—the heart of a secure and resilient internet where free speech and expression flows—should continue to focus their energy on making the web an essential resource for users and, with rare exceptions, avoid content policing. https://t.co/xiBwr1o7Vx
— EFF (@EFF) December 1, 2022
“EFF was part of a group of 55 civil society organizations that launched a statement called ‘Protect the Stack’ just a week ago. And what it is is all these civil society groups from around the world — because especially outside the U.S., they really get this — to say look everybody, stay neutral, do your job, focus on promoting a robust internet. That’s actually the best thing you can do for human rights overall,” McSherry continued.
She added that when she says “everybody,” she means the government too.
“And I think governments also need to be under pressure to stay out of it and stop calling on all these infrastructure providers to intervene,” she said.
As for solutions, she recommended promoting competition and alternatives versus trying to regulate companies into not de-platforming dissidents.
“Just, you know, the best thing you can do is focus elsewhere. Promote competition. Promote alternatives. That’s a thing you can do as opposed to proposing regulations that frankly are just going to be challenged under the Constitution, and those challenges are likely to succeed,” she said.
In the meantime, she continued, EFF and other organizations will continue to apply pressure.
“We have tried, along with a lot of partner organizations, to pressure them as much as we can. And we won’t give up, because that’s what you have to do. You keep up the pressure. But they are in a situation where they’re larger enough that they’re not as vulnerable to pressure from civil society as they should be,” she said.
“But that said, it’s quite important to make sure they don’t get to do this in the darkness. Like I said earlier, a lot of times there’s no way to protest unless people are making noise about it. So if we just accept it and don’t protest, it doesn’t help anybody.”
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