PayPal’s purported content-based bans raise additional concerns about Big Tech’s control over free speech, a digital privacy advocate told Fox News.
“For a decade I’ve been watching content moderation at the platform level go terribly awry,” Corynne McSherry, the legal director at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights group, told Fox News. “Now, more and more we’re watching the same problems … in other parts of the internet stack.”
“It’s not just PayPal,” McSherry continued. “Several of the major payment processors have been playing an increasing role in policing online speech.”
Numerous users have said PayPal temporarily suspended their accounts over their content, resulting in lost income, McSherry told Fox News. Critics have also accused PayPal of censoring conservative-leaning organizations without reason and scrutinized the tech company for working with the Southern Poverty Law Center in 2019.
PayPal, for example, suspended two U.K.-based organizations — the Free Speech Union, a free speech advocacy group, and The Daily Sceptic, a news platform started to publish stories critical of the COVID-19 lockdowns — in September 2022, which removed their access to funding. The accounts were reinstated two weeks later, but the founder and director of the organizations, Toby Young, told The Telegraph that “PayPal’s software was embedded in all our payment systems, so the sudden closure of our accounts was an existential threat.”
“When they make decisions about whether they’re going to process payments for you, that can mean that your business is going under,” McSherry said. “That can mean that you will not survive because there’s no money coming in.”
Young’s personal account was also suspended and then reinstated. PayPal said the accounts violated its user policy but didn’t provide detail, and the Free Speech Union said it received no prior warnings. The payment platform has also said the First Amendment allows it to restrict accounts for any reason at any time.
PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel told The Free Press in December “if the online forms of your money are frozen, that’s like destroying people economically, limiting their ability to exercise their political voice.”
And if businesses get removed during fundraising months, it could put them at risk of losing huge sums of cash, McSherry said.
“That could be life or death” for your business, McSherry told Fox News.
In a statement, PayPal told Fox New’s it’s “dedicated to providing safe and affordable financial services to people of all backgrounds with a diversity of views. We also take very seriously our responsibility to protect buyers and sellers, while working to ensure that our services are not used for fraudulent or illicit activities.”
The Electronic Frontier Foundation and other civil liberties groups wrote a letter to PayPal and Venmo in June 2021 asking for clarity behind their banning decisions but the coalition never received a response. It’s unclear how many accounts have been suspended or banned.
Gays Against Groomers, a coalition of LGBTQ members who oppose a focus on gender identity and sexual orientation in children’s education, for example, said PayPal and Venmo shut down their accounts for “violating” user agreements. But the platforms, the group said, didn’t detail what the infractions were, and its accounts were later reinstated.
“They took our account down for discriminatory behavior, but I think that’s exactly what they did to us,” Gays Against Groomers’ founder Jaimee Mitchell previously told FOX Business.
The payment platform told FOX Business following the account suspension: “PayPal has a long-standing and consistent Acceptable Use Policy. We take action when we deem that individuals or organizations have violated this policy. Per company policy, PayPal does not disclose specific account information for current or former customers.”
PayPal’s acceptable use policy prohibits users from using the service for activities that involve promoting hate, violence or “racial or other forms of intolerance that is discriminatory.” Critics accused PayPal of enforcing vague policies that allow them to censor viewpoints they don’t agree with, but PayPal CEO Dan Schulman has defended the platform for doing their best to eliminate hate speech.
“These payment processors are largely unaccountable,” McSherry said, noting that the companies can make their own policies and contracts that allow them to remove users without explanation. “The only way to pressure them is just to sort of make noise about them but it’s very, very difficult.”
Big tech companies “are in a situation where they are large enough that they are not as vulnerable to pressure from civil society as they should be,” McSherry said.
The legal director previously told Fox News that big tech banning decisions, while allowed under a company’s First Amendment rights, showcased “an enormous amount of power over online speech that’s concentrated in relatively a few hands.”
“There needs to be sort of much more of a movement and much more visibility to pressure infrastructure providers to basically stay neutral,” McSherry said.
Electronic Frontier Foundation was among an international coalition of 56 civil liberties groups that launched a website called. “Protect The Stack.” It called on online communication and commerce companies to avoid excessive content policing and to promote free expression.
“We have tried, along with a lot of partner organizations, to pressure them as much as we can,” McSherry said. “We won’t give up.”
To hear more from McSherry on the power payment processors have over online speech, click here.