Yesterday the online payment company Paypal froze the account of an organisation raising money for Bradley Manning, the soldier accused of leaking confidential military documents to WikiLeaks. Since 2006 the San Francisco-based organisation, Courage to Resist, has been using Paypal to raise funds for “military objectors” who have refused to participate in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The group says there were no issues, however, until supporters were recently encouraged to donate to help fund a "Stand with Bradley Manning" campaign.
Paypal's decision undermines democratic principles
Late last year, Paypal made the news after they similarly froze the account of WikiLeaks. A short statement from the company at the time said that WikiLeaks had violated its Acceptable Use Policy, and pointed to a clause stating “our payment service cannot be used for any activities that encourage, promote, facilitate or instruct others to engage in illegal activity.”
This time, according to Courage to Resist, Paypal – whose annual revenue in 2010 was $3.4bn (£2.1bn) – made no reference to any clause in its terms of service. Instead, they restricted the group’s account pending “organisational verification.” Paypal executives then asked questions about “the intended use of the funds being solicited in support of Bradley Manning” and requested details of purchases made with funds received via Paypal. Eventually, the executives concluded that the appropriate course of action was to freeze the Courage to Resist account.
They were not legally obliged to do so. Rather, the decision was taken on the basis of an “internal policy” that they refused to divulge. As a private company, Paypal are of course entitled to shut down accounts as they see fit. But it is a problem when a company of such size and influence chooses to adopt an overtly political stance on an explosive, controversial issue like Bradley Manning with little explanation.
After Paypal’s decision was publicised yesterday morning, an internet backlash ensued. Within a few hours, 10,000 people had signed a petition calling for them to reinstate the Courage to Resist account. Likely realising they had a public relations disaster on their hands, Paypal promptly obliged. “This decision had nothing to do with WikiLeaks,” they said in a statement. “We have decided to lift the temporary restriction placed on their [Courage to Resist's] account.”
Yet the implications of their initial decision remain highly significant, and had there not been a huge backlash the Courage to Resist account would still be frozen. It is a serious matter of concern that by refusing to facilitate payments to a support fund raising finances for Bradley Manning’s legal aid – albeit temporarily – Paypal participated in what equates essentially to an act of political repression.
The question is: who next? If Bradley Manning is a policy problem for Paypal, technically every person accused of a crime is at risk of having their account frozen, especially if politics is involved. A quick Google search reveals prisoner support funds for animal rights activists, G20 protestors and even former Guantanamo Bay prisoners, all using Paypal to raise money. If the company is to take issue with Manning, then surely by extension of their own logic it is only a matter of time before they clamp down on others.
There is no going back for Paypal now. By adopting what appears to have been a political stance on an issue that should be far beyond their remit as an online payment provider, they have shown themselves to be cut from the same cloth as draconian forces at the highest echelons of American power. They have engaged in what it is difficult to conceive of as anything other than a kind of corporate McCarthyism, backpedalling only after thousands of voices boomed a chorus of discontent.
Ten days ago, US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton gave a speech in which she condemned political censorship in China, Iran, Burma, Egypt, Vietnam, Cuba, Tunisia and Syria. Though as this latest revelation in the Bradley Manning saga illustrates, Clinton could do worse than look closer to home for pertinent examples of repression. “Our commitment to internet freedom is a commitment to the rights of people,” she said at the time, “and we are matching that with our actions.” In the wake of their experiences with Paypal, it is very much doubtful the Stand with Bradley Manning campaign would agree.