Censored cash: Fundraising when the powerful want to stop you
Fundraising can be a weak point for political campaigners, from hemp advocates to free Russian media
Fundraising is essential to political campaigns, large and small. Yet payment platforms, like PayPal, can unduly cut them off due to governmental pressure, automated flagging systems, or for undisclosed reasons.
WikiLeaks famously struggled with financial strangulation as it sought to publicise war crimes and information it deemed in the public interest. Visa was one company accused of putting “priority on political influence over the law” when it stopped taking payments to the organisation.
In the worst case, entire groups are denied access to money systems, such as the unexplained exclusion of Palestinian citizens from PayPal’s services.
Liberate Hemp, a campaign against the UK’s hemp regulatory regime, faces similar issues. Any account associated with watch-words such as ‘hemp’ can be blocked by Stripe, as detailed in the company’s service terms.
Automated machine learning systems are among the tools it uses to make such assessments, though it doesn’t explain how. Programmatically cutting out swathes of society based on keyword lists is a crude and unjust approach to managing digital spaces.
Stripe accepts that its “restrictions can function more like hammers than scalpels – tools designed to bluntly manage risk, not support the maximum number of businesses possible”.
A Liberate Hemp spokesperson explained their search for alternatives: “We have used PayPal and Stripe but were booted off at inconvenient times for being a hemp-based organisation, which gets us automatically flagged. Many other systems didn’t let us on at all.
“We also want to be able to collect money without one person being held responsible for the whole campaign's actions – we have collective responsibility.
“After the truckers in Canada got their GoFundMe donations withheld, and in light of our previous experiences, we sought a system that wouldn't be able to withhold donations once they’ve been made.”
Such cases of extra-judicial action take a toll on legitimate activity and represent a significant means to throttle political opposition.
No matter your political persuasion, there’s bound to be a cause you sympathise with that has faced the undemocratic impulses of monetary gatekeepers.
Arguably, centralised crowdfunding sites – for example, sites like GoFundMe with a payments firm like Stripe or Visa controlling the flow of funds – are more likely to succumb to this as there is a single point of attack.
Raising money elsewhere
Uncertainty about income drives campaigners to find alternatives to the payment majors.
Ukraine DAO (Decentralised Autonomous Organisation) uses blockchain systems to raise and distribute funds for the war with Russia. It is a grassroots network that has funnelled over $8m, donated in Ethereum cryptocurrency, to directly assist military and humanitarian efforts with the blessing of the Ukrainian state.
The DAO’s team say that the transparency and efficiency of raising cryptocurrency makes it an attractive choice for gathering cash fast. “Efficiency” may also refer to avoiding the arduous bureaucracy typically involved in financing military operations. This kind of fundraising breaks new ground by allowing ordinary people to mobilise resources for serious geopolitical projects.
In a similar way campaigners for Julian Assange raised over $35m with a mission to seek justice for the WikiLeaks founder.
Liberate Hemp now takes donations in cryptocurrency first and foremost due to the precarity of e-commerce involving hemp. “The only easy approach that met our needs were donations direct to our crypto wallet.”
So what practical options exist for campaigns stunted by these murky arbitration processes?
There are some, albeit limited, solutions, from cryptocurrencies to crowdfunding platforms designed to withstand take-downs.
Prashan Paramanathan of Chuffed, which hosts campaigns such as Extinction Rebellion, explains that his platform allows fundraising so long as it is not to support criminal activity. “Unfortunately,” he said, “the UK and other jurisdictions have been broadening the definition of various forms of protest as criminal activity, which puts platforms in a tricky situation.”
As for ‘deplatforming’, or having campaigns you oppose removed from platforms to neutralise them, he says that “actors try and target the most susceptible point to take down something they disagree with” which is often the payments provider.
For campaigns seeking popular support, cryptocurrency is not yet particularly helpful because it lacks widespread accessibility. Most donors expect to be able to support causes quickly – using a credit card, for example – which can be complicated with cryptocurrency, although that is changing.
Some critics suggest that such alternatives lend themselves to law-breaking. Yet if authorities want to close down systems that facilitate law-breaking, those can typically be targeted directly. This is the case with the recent crackdown on cryptocurrency privacy hub, Tornado Cash.
Finance commentator Brett Scott suggests the fact that “marginal groups can use it as a marginal form of exchange is one of the better uses of crypto-tokens.”
He notes that “most people using cryptocurrency have to resell it for local money before they can actually use it to buy stuff, usually through a centralised exchange” which can be subject to controls too. But “there is no long-term solution to this problem. Any group that’s outside of the mainstream will always face some kind of scrutiny. Certainly cryptocurrency has provided a new option, for now.”
Outside the law?
There is legitimate demand from legally-compliant organisations that are arbitrarily outcast by firms who control the primary financial rails of the internet.
While law-abiding citizens are denied income by powerful interests, the argument in favour of enabling them to fundraise one way or another remains.
If money makes the world go round, we must make sure it’s not only propelled by the powerful.
Here is a survey of platforms better suited to organisations excluded from the financial mainstream. We will update this based on reader suggestions in the comments below.
|https://chuffed.org||Says it is committed to supporting radical causes||Relies on PayPal or Stripe for payments, so subject to their decisions|
|https://Firefund.net||Says it is committed to supporting radical causes||Relies on Stripe for payments, so subject to their decisions|
|Cryptocurrency (e.g. Bitcoin, Monero, Ethereum, stablecoins)||
Currently unregulated in the same way as payment providers
Not subject to control by payment processor firms
Poor usability and adoption, for now
Using funds usually involves centralised exchanges which may be subject to pressure
Do you know of any relevant fundraising options not covered here? Please add your suggestion as a comment below. We will add and highlight good comments, particularly those that highlight platforms we’ve missed – you could receive micropayments for your highlighted comments.
Get our weekly email