On September 15th, Toby – the Free Speech Union’s General Secretary – was notified by PayPal that it was permanently closing his personal account, as well as the accounts of the Daily Sceptic and the Free Speech Union (FSU), both of which he runs. The reason cited in all three cases was that the accounts had violated PayPal’s ‘Acceptable Use Policy’. Not that that really gave any clue as to the specifics of the alleged misdemeanour, because as the Mail explains, the policy “contains numerous ‘prohibited activities’ including transactions involving illegal drugs [and] stolen goods”.
The closest the FSU came to an explanation was a message from ‘executive escalations’ in the company’s European HQ in Luxembourg, which included this sentence: “PayPal’s policy is not to allow our services to be used for activities that promote hate, violence or racial intolerance.” Confusingly, PayPal then told the Times that it had demonetised all three accounts because the Daily Sceptic was guilty of spreading “misinformation” about the Covid vaccines. Even more confusingly, that would constitute a breach of the company’s ‘User Agreement’, not its ‘Acceptable Use Policy’ – so why start out by accusing the FSU of violating the second, not the first? Toby’s suspicion was that someone at PayPal simply didn’t like his politics and had removed his accounts for that reason, without bothering to create a proper alibi.
Perhaps they didn’t think they’d need one; that an organisation like the FSU would go gently into the night, just like so many others it has financially bullied in the past. They hadn’t reckoned on the FSU’s General Secretary. After breaking the news of the FSU’s demonetisation on GB News he “went to war”, writing about the episode for the Spectator, Spiked and the Telegraph, undertaking interviews (Disruption Banking, Laura Dodsworth), encouraging his social media followers to boycott the company and making guest appearances on various TV and radio shows (GB News, News NTD, Sky News Aus). The story quickly gained traction (Breitbart, Epoch Times, GB News, Mail, Spectator, Spiked, Telegraph, Times), and across the British media the company’s actions were roundly condemned, with thousands of people subsequently taking to social media to declare they were cancelling their accounts in solidarity with the FSU and UsForThem, an advocacy group set up by a group of mums to lobby against school closures during lockdown which was also deplatformed by PayPal.
The political pushback was similarly ferocious. According to the Sunday Express, politicians “reacted with fury to PayPal’s actions, with one Conservative peer saying she had ‘never seen so much cross-party outrage’ over the move”. Danny Kruger MP took to the floor of the House of Commons to ask a question about PayPal’s actions, and just as importantly – and pointedly – about the regulatory environment in which companies like PayPal presently operate. Baroness Fox raised the issue – to loud cheers – on BBC1’s Question Time (you can watch a clip here).
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 – also wrote to Business Secretary Jacob Rees-Mogg, urging the Government to hold PayPal to account and pointing out that the “common theme” among the organisations and individuals to have had their accounts closed — the Free Speech Union, the Daily Sceptic, Law or Fiction, and UsforThem — was that they were all prominent “champions of free speech” who have expressed “critical, non-conforming views on lockdown policies”. Understood in that context, they suggested, it is a little difficult “to avoid construing PayPal’s actions as an orchestrated, politically motivated move to silence critical or dissenting views within the U.K.”. Mr Rees-Mogg then gave an interview to the Telegraph in which he accused PayPal of trying to cancel the FSU, and told the company that it must now “justify its behaviour” (also Express, Independent).
Less than 24 hours later, the accounts were reinstated (Mail, Telegraph) (UsForThem’s account was reinstated over the weekend). At 5:30pm on Tuesday, PayPal notified Toby that it had restored all three of the accounts it cancelled a couple of weeks ago — the FSU, the Daily Sceptic and his personal account. In each case the email explained that these accounts had in fact been under “review” and that after “input” from its “stakeholders”, the company had decided to lift the block.
The fact that PayPal has reinstated the FSU’s accounts is welcome. But what happened to it shouldn’t be dismissed as some sort of aberration. As we hurtle towards a cashless economy, it’s part of a global trend towards weaponising Big Tech and financial services systems to suppress dissent of every kind. We saw it in the case of Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau shutting down the Freedom Convoy earlier this year. But there are other, less high-profile instances of people with dissenting views being deplatformed by companies like Patreon, CrowdJustice and GoFundMe. Nor should it be forgotten that the PayPal account of U.K. Medical Freedom Alliance – an organisation that raises perfectly lawful questions about Covid vaccines – remains frozen. (As in Toby’s case, the head of the UKMFA, Liz Evans, has also had her personal PayPal account closed.)
That’s why the FSU will now be lobbying the Government to develop a legislative mechanism capable of preventing Big Tech companies headquartered outside the U.K. 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).
If there’s a positive to come out of this it’s that the publicity generated by PayPal’s actions has brought the wider issue of financial censorship to the attention of both Houses of Parliament. The Telegraph , for instance, reported that financial services companies could soon “be banned from blocking the accounts of campaign groups for political reasons”. That’s because Conservative backbenchers are apparently “considering launching an amendment” to a Parliamentary bill that would effectively ban companies from freezing campaigners’ accounts. One source quoted in that Telegraph article said that ministers are likely to accept an amendment. If that’s true, then this could be a big moment in the fightback against financial censorship.
But legislative work takes time, which means that we need to keep that pressure up, mobilising the extraordinary public opposition to PayPal’s recent behaviour to tell our politicians that we don’t want a Chinese-style social credit system to be rolled out across the West, the only difference being that instead of the Chinese Communist Party enforcing ideological dogma, it’s woke capitalist corporations based in California.
Using the Free Speech Union’s campaigning tool to write to your MP is a great way to keep up the pressure and remind legislators that there are strong feeling on this issue among the public. So if you’re as outraged as we are by PayPal’s attempt to cancel the Free Speech Union and other groups, please use this tool to send a template email to your MP, urging them to ask a question about it in the House of Commons. The process only takes two minutes and the link is here.
During the period that the FSU’s PayPal account was suspended, campaign group the Democratic Network carried out a survey designed to trace attitudes towards the payment processor among its customers. In total, 3,172 people took part in the survey, all of whom had PayPal accounts. Of those taking part, 1,872 support the work of the Free Speech Union or UsforThem, 745 oppose that work, and 388 described themselves as “neutral”. The results show that as news of the U.S. company’s actions broke, the vast majority (86%) of supporters stopped or reduced their use of PayPal. Within that group, 45% stopped using PayPal temporarily, 31% cancelled their PayPal account altogether, and 20% reduced their use. This indicates that boycotts might be one way for people to fight back against politically motivated financial censorship.
Dr. Frederick Attenborough is the Communications Officer of the Free Speech Union. A version of this article first appeared in this week’s FSU newsletter, which you can subscribe to here.
Stop Press: FIRE, the American pro-free speech advocacy group, has strongly condemned PayPal’s decision to deplatform the Free Speech Union, describing it as a “threat to the culture of freedom of expression”.