Financial censorship harms press freedom

Seth Stern

Director of Advocacy

Caitlin Vogus Headshot

Deputy Director of Advocacy

When payment processors like Paypal and GoFundMe aren’t transparent about their policies and practices for account freezes and closures, journalists can’t know what crosses the line and the public can’t hold these companies to account.

kenteegardin, via Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0.

We’ve long warned of the dangers to free expression when powerful financial institutions cut off journalists from using their services — whether we agree with the journalists’ point of view or not. Now, another controversial publisher is facing a financial roadblock after GoFundMe summarily shut down its fundraiser with little explanation.

According to The Dissenter, GoFundMe recently halted a fundraiser for Grayzone, which describes itself as an “independent news website,” and refused to transfer over $90,000 raised to the organization. GoFundMe responded to a request for an explanation by Grayzone by saying only, “Due to some external concerns, we need to review your fundraiser to make sure it complies with our Terms of Service.” No additional information was provided.

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We’re not here to defend Grayzone as a model of journalistic excellence or endorse the veracity of any story they have published. Many have criticized Grayzone for praising authoritarian regimes and ties to foreign state media, among other things. The outlet is often accused of spreading disinformation and propaganda. Even if we were to assume that is all true, we would still strongly object to GoFundMe freezing it out and then refusing to explain why.

Payment processors aren’t news editors, fact-checkers or disinformation experts. They’re not making their decisions on who to block based on careful analysis of an outlet’s content. They’re making them based on popular opinion and their own bottom lines. Are you comfortable with them making those decisions in secret, whether or not you agree with their decision this time around?

This time, GoFundMe decided to block Grayzone. What about the next disfavored critic of U.S. foreign policy? Imagine, for example, how GoFundMe might have reacted to a fringe news outlet critical of the Iraq War if it existed at the height of the war’s popularity.

Some may brush aside “slippery slope” arguments, believing that GoFundMe’s recent actions were a unique response to particularly offensive content that won’t happen again. We (and the facts) beg to differ. Payment processors and fundraising sites have repeatedly blocked news sites in the past. In addition to its notorious financial blockade on Wikileaks, Paypal canceled the account of Consortium News and froze its funds. Around the same time, Paypal and GoFundMe both banned MintPress News. In another case, PayPal froze the account of News Media Canada.

These blockades have real consequences for news outlets and freelancers, who often rely on payment processors to keep the lights on and pay for their reporting. In the digital age, they can (figuratively) stop the presses. That’s why FPF and many other civil society organizations have repeatedly called on payment processors to be transparent about their policies and practices for account freezes and closure. Without transparency, members of the public can’t assess whether they agree with these sites’ policies and practices, whether they’re applying their policies consistently, or whether governments are working behind the scenes to suppress speech.

Transparency is also necessary for government regulators and lawmakers to understand how financial services exclude certain groups and businesses. Members of Congress have repeatedly expressed concerns about the impacts of financial service companies’ arbitrary terms, prompting the end of one controversial Justice Department program that pressured finance companies to shut off lawful accounts and renewing concerns about the disparate impact of financial exclusion on Muslim communities.

GoFundMe’s nebulous terms of service, for example, allow it to prohibit fundraising for anything it unilaterally determines is “an abuse of power” or “causes reputational harm.” Those terms could just as easily be used to kick your favorite opinion columnist off GoFundMe as they were used against Greyzone. They would allow GoFundMe to block us from fundraising on its service for writing this article and harming its reputation. They’d also allow it to block you if you criticize this article and harm ours. Journalists who rely on GoFundMe may think twice before expressing unpopular viewpoints after seeing what happened to Grayzone.

Of course, as private companies, payment processors and fundraising websites have the right to choose who they do business with. But they also have an obligation to the public to be transparent about how they make those decisions and provide meaningful mechanisms for account holders to appeal those decisions.

In the case of Grayzone, for example, GoFundMe pointed to “some external concerns” that sparked its “review.” If those external concerns were raised by the United States government or another government, then the law and the constitution does come into play. GoFundMe’s allusion to “external” factors, without identifying them, raises concerns about the government circumventing the Constitution by commandeering private companies to do its bidding.

Again, this problem is not hypothetical. Then-Sen. Joe Lieberman helped spark Visa, Mastercard and PayPal cutting off Wikileaks in 2011, after it published secret government documents (he also floated the idea of prosecuting The New York Times, speaking of slippery slopes). In fact, Freedom of the Press Foundation was founded in part to counteract this financial blockade and prevent the action from becoming commonplace. Similarly, Cook County Sheriff Thomas Dart infamously bullied Visa and Mastercard out of working with Backpage.com, an action that a federal appellate court found violated the First Amendment.

Given this context, criticisms of Grayzone become irrelevant — it’s far from the first outlet to receive this treatment. And if people accept it this time just because they dislike Grayzone, it surely won’t be the last. Distractions and emotions aside, the bottom line is this: Do we want financial services companies, loyal only to their investors and with no particular interest in First Amendment freedoms, deciding which publishers should be able to pay the bills?

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