The Volokh Conspiracy

Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent

Free Speech

"FIRE Statement on Free Speech and Online Payment Processors"


Seems quite sound to me; here's the introduction and some examples, but read the whole thing:

  • The issue: Online payment processors like Venmo and PayPal often deny Americans access to these vital services based on their speech or viewpoints. 
  • The concern: When these companies appoint themselves the arbiters of what speech and views are acceptable, shutting people and organizations out of the online financial ecosystem for wrongthink, they seriously undermine our culture of free expression.

Imagine you could no longer use PayPal, Venmo, or another online payment processor because you run an organization that defends free speech for controversial speakers, operate an independent media outlet that challenges mainstream narratives, sell erotic fiction or "occult" materials, or … tried to submit an article about Syrian refugees into a newspaper awards competition.

These are not hypotheticals. They're real, and they illustrate why online payment service providers should stay out of the business of policing their users' speech and views.

Access to online payment systems is crucial for the innumerable individuals and organizations that rely on financial support for their expressive activity. It's essential to content creators' ability to earn a living, to websites' and other businesses' ability to raise revenue, to fundraising by political candidates and nonprofit organizations, and to everyday Americans' ability to consume content and support causes they believe in. When payment processing services act as political hall monitors or moral arbiters deciding what speech and viewpoints are out of bounds, they present a grave threat to free expression.

A small number of companies dominate the space, allowing them to wield significant control over the speech environment by denying service to users who express disfavored views or wade into controversial subject matter. PayPal (which owns Venmo), for instance, has 325 million active users. Merchants and individuals put on payment processors' blacklists may find themselves in a financially precarious situation….

Consider these examples:

  • In September 2022, PayPal shut down Toby Young's personal account and the accounts of two organizations he founded — the Free Speech Union, a UK-based free speech organization, and the Daily Sceptic, which publishes articles skeptical of Covid restrictions and other controversial topics. A PayPal spokesman told the press, "Achieving the balance between protecting the ideals of tolerance, diversity and respect for people of all backgrounds and upholding the values of free expression and open dialogue can be difficult, but we do our best to achieve it." After significant public pushback, PayPal reinstated the accounts.
  • Earlier this year, PayPal suspended the accounts of independent media outlets Consortium News and MintPress, both of which have been a source of skeptical reporting about the Russia-Ukraine conflict.
  • Also in 2022, PayPal booted writer Colin Wright shortly after Etsy banned him for selling merchandise that "promotes, supports, or glorifies hatred or violence towards protected groups." Wright is a critic of transgender activism, and his merchandise included text like "Reality's Last Stand" (the name of his Substack) and "Defender of Reality." PayPal told him "there was a change in your business model or your business was considered risky." After Wright sought a more detailed explanation, PayPal told him he would need to "submit a legal subpoena." …
  • Venmo flagged and restricted a Muslim woman's payment to a friend with the note "al-aqsa" to pay her back for a meal at Al-Aqsa Restaurant in the Bronx. The Al-Aqsa Mosque is one of the holiest sites in Islam. Venmo also flagged the account of a user who paid friends for dinner at a Persian restaurant in Manhattan because of keywords related to Iran, which is subject to U.S. sanction laws limiting transactions between the countries.
  • PayPal froze the account of a Canadian media association after it tried to pay for entry of an article about Syrian refugees into an awards competition….
  • In 2010, WikiLeaks began disclosing the contents of diplomatic cables, leading government officials to criticize credit card companies for allowing people to donate to the organization. Visa, Mastercard, and PayPal soon suspended WikiLeaks' accounts. This case illustrates the danger of government jawboning, even if the pressure doesn't rise to the level of a First Amendment violation….
  • In 2017, EFF reported that Fetlife, an adult social network centered around BDSM, lost credit card processing privileges, with justifications including "complaints about 'blood, needles, and vampirism'" and "illegal or immoral reasons." …