At around 2pm on 15th September I received an email from PayPal informing me that the company was ‘initiating closure’ of my personal account because I was ‘in violation’ of its ‘Acceptable Use Policy’.
I looked up that policy and it covers a multitude of sins, but no clue was offered as to which one I’d committed. ‘If you have money in your PayPal balance, we’ll hold it for up to 180 days,’ it said. That was annoying because I had over $700 in the account, but it wasn’t the end of the world. I mainly use it for receiving payments from European magazines I write for occasionally.
Then it got serious. Within a few minutes of contacting me, PayPal sent the same message to the Daily Sceptic, the news publishing website I’ve been running for two-and-a-half years, and the Free Speech Union, an organisation I set up in 2020 to defend people who get into trouble for exercising their legal right to free speech.
In both cases, PayPal was shutting down the accounts for the same reason – breaching the Acceptable Use Policy. No further details. To give you a sense of how serious this was, about a quarter of the Daily Sceptic’s donor revenue was processed by PayPal and about a third of the Free Speech Union’s 10,500 members paid their dues via PayPal.
‘So what?’ you might think. Just email all those people and advise them to use a different payment processor. I did that, obviously, but it was inevitable that some of them didn’t bother – some of them didn’t even open the emails – and we’ll suffer some revenue losses this year as a result.
The Daily Sceptic has four people on the payroll and the Free Speech Union has 16 and they both operate on tight margins. I was relying on PayPal to deliver the service it promised to perform when I first signed up and which I’ve been paying for until now (1.5% commission on every transaction).
I had no idea it could just whisk the rug out from under you, with no notice and without having to provide any proper explanation. In my case, the excuse offered was obviously bogus. How could all three accounts be guilty of ‘violating’ the same policy within minutes of each other?
So why had PayPal deplatformed me? I can only guess, but I suspect it’s because someone at the company isn’t very keen on free speech. I did some Googling and discovered that numerous organisations and individuals with dissident political views have had their accounts closed by PayPal recently, particularly about the three issues you’re not allowed to be sceptical about – the lockdown policy and other Covid restrictions, the mRNA vaccines, and the ‘climate emergency’.
The Daily Sceptic frequently publishes articles on those subjects and the Free Speech Union may have fallen foul of another taboo – defending people who’ve got into trouble with HR departments for refusing to declare their gender pronouns. PayPal, like most Big Tech companies, has sided with the transrights activists on that issue. A journalist called Colin Wright, an outspoken critic of the view that sex is a social construct, lost his account in June.
I tried appealing to customer service and got nowhere. I wrote to Vincent Belloc, the CEO of PayPal UK, and didn’t get a reply. I contacted the ‘corporate communications team’ in New York and London, telling them I was planning to write about what had happened and asking for a comment. Nothing. As so often when dealing with these Silicon Valley behemoths, it’s impossible to hold them to account.
At least, that’s what I thought. Turned out, I was able to successfully appeal the decision – not via PayPal, but in the national media and in the British Parliament.
I broke the story of what PayPal had done to me on television, then followed up with articles for various websites and magazines, and encouraged journalist friends of mine to cover the story. Along with another advocacy group that PayPal had deplatformed – UsForThem – I helped pull together a letter to the British Government signed by 42 peers and MPs urging it to do something about banks and payment processors penalising people because they disapprove of their politics. Shortly afterwards, the Business Secretary Jacob Rees-Mogg said that PayPal’s behaviour was an example of ‘cancel culture’.
On 27th September, PayPal reopened all three of my accounts. I had initially been told they had been permanently closed, but now, apparently, they had only been under ‘review’. The message from the company read as follows: ‘We have continued to review the information provided in connection with your account and we take seriously the input from our customers and stakeholders. Based on these ongoing reviews, we have made the decision to reinstate your account.’
So what happened? The fact that PayPal’s decision to close these accounts was almost universally condemned – including by a former leader of the Conservative Party – undoubtedly helped. In addition, I received thousands of emails and messages from people telling me they’d closed their PayPal accounts in solidarity, which may have helped too.
Another reason is that the company might have been advised it was on tricky legal ground. A few days after re-opening my accounts, it announced an update to its Acceptable Use Policy, granting itself the right to fine its customers $2,500 and shut down their accounts if they used PayPal to promote ‘misinformation’. That was one of the reasons the company gave for closing my accounts – a PayPal spokesperson told the Times of London that the Daily Sceptic was guilty of spreading ‘misinformation’ about the Covid-19 vaccines.
In response, I pointed out that there was nothing in the Acceptable Use Policy about ‘misinformation’ – so it’s conceivable that PayPal may have updated that policy so in future it could shut down the accounts of people like me without risking being sued.
But the ‘misinformation’ update backfired, prompting criticism on Twitter from PayPal’s former President David Marcus as well as the company’s co-founder Elon Musk. It’s impossible to know how many customers closed their accounts for fear that they might be fined $2,500, but #BoycottPayPal started trending on Twitter on 9th October. In response, the company did a U-turn, claiming the update to its Acceptable Use Policy had been issued ‘in error’.
When trading opened on Wall Street the following Monday, the stock price fell by five per cent and by the end of the week it was trading at $80.47 a share, down from a peak of $97.66 on 14th September, the day before it closed my accounts. That’s a decline of 18.42 per cent, meaning the company’s market cap has now fallen by approximately $20bn since it picked a fight with me.
And that fight’s not over. The Free Speech Union is now lobbying the British Government to change the law so in future companies like PayPal cannot discriminate against their customers for their political beliefs.
Unless we can persuade legislators to put such safeguards in place, there will be nothing to stop the emergence of a Chinese-style social credit system in the West. The only difference will be that instead of the Communist authorities enforcing ideological compliance it will be woke capitalist corporations.
Once that starts happening on a large scale – and it has already begun – it will be the end of free speech as we know it.