Free Speech Union: weekly news round-up

Dear Mike Buchanan,

Welcome to the FSU’s weekly newsletter, our round-up of the free speech news of the week. As with all our work, this newsletter depends on the support of our members and donors, so if you’re not already a paying member please sign up today or encourage a friend to join, and help us turn the tide against cancel culture.

Sinister, shocking, dangerous: Reaction to PayPal’s demonetisation of the FSU

The FSU has been demonetised by US payments company PayPal for daring to stand up for free speech and freedom of expression. PayPal UK, the company whose Twitter banner proudly proclaims that it is “open for all”, has now permanently shut the accounts of the FSU, as well as the personal account of our co-founder and General Secretary, Toby Young, and Toby’s news website, the Daily Sceptic, without prior warning, meaningful explanation or recourse to a proper appeals process (Epoch Times, GB News, Mail, National, Telegraph).

Speaking on Nigel Farage’s GB News show, Toby described the company’s actions as “a new low” in Big Tech’s war on free speech. The fact that people who express contentious political views are now regularly cancelled, de-platformed or demonetised is bad enough, he said. But if that same treatment is now going to be meted out to organisations like the FSU that merely defend people’s rights to express those views, we are entering into another, and altogether more sinister world.

Questions have also now been raised in Parliament regarding PayPal’s actions, and, just as importantly, the regulatory environment in which companies like PayPal presently operate. Citing the FSU’s recent demonetisation, Danny Kruger MP took to the floor of the House of Commons to express his “deep concern” at the fin-tech company’s actions. “As we move towards a cashless economy,” Mr Kruger said, “companies like PayPal form part of the essential infrastructure of ordinary life.” Would the Government “take steps to ensure that [these companies] cannot discriminate against individuals or organisations on the basis of perfectly legal political views?” It was a “very good topic for debate”, said the Leader of the House, Penny Mordaunt, in response – so good, in fact, that she encouraged MPs to put the issue forward for a debate in the Chamber. (You can watch the exchange here).

PayPal’s actions also met with condemnation across the media. The FSU’s special guest at our forthcoming, members only Online Speakeasy event, comedian and writer Jack Dee, told his 575,000 Twitter followers that he was in the process of cancelling his PayPal account. “Big Tech companies that feel they can bully people for questioning mainstream groupthink don’t deserve anyone’s business,” he said. In the view of GB News’s Colin Brazier, “No single organisation – within or without government – has done more over the last couple of years to stand up for basic freedoms than the FSU.” Another GB News presenter, Dan Wootton described the FSU as “one of the most important organisations in the country” and professed himself “proud to be a member of a group that was set up to fight the causes of so many ordinary Brits who have found their lives turned upside down after being cancelled by the woke mob – often for holding views the majority of the population actually agree with” (GB News).

For Big Brother Watch’s Mark Johnson, PayPal’s “flex” of its “digital power” is “deeply concerning and dangerous for us all” (Unherd). The “sheer irony” of the thing struck Laura Dodsworth – an organisation that stands up for those who have been deplatformed now getting deplatformed itself. “Big Tech bowdlerisation and banditry,” she said, is a “shocking development”, not least because it would have been “unthinkable only a very short time ago”. Tom Slater agreed: the deplatforming of the FSU was “sinister” and “shows just how unhinged Big Tech censorship is quickly becoming” (Spiked).

Elsewhere, FSU Advisory Council Member Lord Frost described the decision to close the FSU’s account as “a very worrying development” and urged the Financial Conduct Authority “to look into this urgently”. “It is quite wrong for PayPal to close the FSU’s account,” Lord Bethell said, adding that the “politicisation of payment platforms is a worrying trend”. It was also heartening to see four of the FSU’s fellow campaign organisations – Big Brother Watch, Article 19, Index on Censorship and the Open Rights Group – issue a joint statement expressing concern “that PayPal has shut down the account of the FSU without adequate explanation or an effective route to appeal”. The statement also made clear that: “PayPal’s refusal to serve individuals and groups associated with lawful political causes – let alone ones where the right to free expression is directly impacted – is alarming, wrong, and dangerous for all of us who value the right to politically organise and express ourselves online.”

The FSU has now updated its home page to include a compilation of clips about PayPal’s attempt to demonetise us, which you can watch here. Our press release on the matter is available here. And if you’d like a quick reminder about the important work the FSU does in support of members that have been sacked, cancelled, penalised, harassed or attacked by outrage mobs simply for exercising their legal right to free speech, we’ve put together a selection of some of our highest-profile cases from the past six months for you to read about here.  

How have you been affected?

About a third of our 9,500 members are paying their dues via PayPal and we’ve written to all of them with instructions about how to switch to another payment processor. If you’ve received that email, please follow the instructions; if you haven’t, that’s because you aren’t affected and you don’t need to do anything. If you want to make a donation to the FSU to help us deal with any of the fall-out from this attack, please do so on our Donate page. Rest assured, all traces of PayPal have now been expunged from our systems.

Why has the FSU been demonetised?

How did we get here – to a world in which a financial intermediary can so casually close the account of an organisation that defends people’s right to free speech, and that does so without taking sides on the issues that those people are speaking about?

Writing for the Spectator, Toby recounts receiving his first email from PayPal last week, informing him that the company was “initiating closure” of his personal account. A few minutes later, PayPal sent the same message to the FSU and the Daily Sceptic. In each case the message was the same: PayPal was shutting down the account because it was in “violation” of the company’s “Acceptable Use Policy”. Not that that really gives any clue as to the specifics of our alleged misdemeanour, because as the Mail explains, the policy “contains numerous ‘prohibited activities’ including transactions involving illegal drugs, stolen goods, or ‘the promotion of hate, violence, racial or other forms of intolerance’”.  

What’s so odd about PayPal’s decision is that, as Tom Slater remarks, “even the briefest of glances at the FSU’s output would make clear that Toby is not presiding over a network of hate-mongers” (Spiked). Not even legal-but-harmful mongers, actually. Then again, do PayPal’s algorithmically driven systems have much time for anything as human and contextually sensitive as a ‘glance’? Certainly, the fact that the FSU exists to protect dissenters against cancel culture and has defended people from across the political spectrum seems to have been entirely lost on a company that is now treating the FSU “as if it were a new offshoot of ISIS”. Tom Slater’s analogy is chillingly apt – in a similar manner to an individual who is placed on the UK Government sanctions list and then has his/her assets frozen, PayPal will now get to keep the money in Toby’s account for up to 180 days while it decides whether it is entitled to “damages” for the FSU’s as yet unspecified breach of its Acceptable Use Policy. (Although it isn’t keeping the money in the FSU or the Daily Sceptic account, which is a relief.)

Quite why the company decided on this course of action remains a mystery. Speaking to the Telegraph, Toby said he suspected foul play. If PayPal had shut down just one of these accounts “it could conceivably be because it had violated the company’s Acceptable Use Policy”, he said. “But it closed all three accounts within minutes of each other, suggesting there’s a more sinister reason.” Writing for Unherd, Mark Johnson was inclined to agree: the fact that the accounts were targeted “in one fell swoop” suggests that PayPal “designated Toby and the websites he runs as non grata because of some unidentified political transgression”.

‘Unidentified’ is right! No-one at the FSU knows why we’ve been placed on the Big Tech naughty-step. Have we fallen foul of one of woke culture’s strongest taboos – defending people who’ve got into trouble with HR departments for refusing to declare their gender pronouns? “Open for all” PayPal, like most Big Tech companies, has certainly sided with the trans-rights activists on that issue. Or is the Daily Sceptic the source of PayPal’s political discomfort? As Toby pointed out in the Times, his news site has never knowingly published ‘misinformation’ regarding Net Zero, Covid or mRNA vaccines, but of course over in Silicon Valley, ‘misinformation’ is often little more than a euphemism for “an opinion I disagree with”.

As our Chief Legal Counsel Bryn Harris made clear, what we need from PayPal now is an explanation as to what the FSU has allegedly done, and what the company’s justification is for withdrawing its business (Talk TV). In an attempt to prompt the company into making some sort of gesture towards ‘due process’ of that kind, Toby has written to the CEO of PayPal UK – Vincent Belloc (who you can email here), and the Corporate Affairs Department of PayPal US and PayPal UK (you can email them here and here), asking for an explanation. There’s been no reply, obviously – as so often when dealing with these Silicon Valley behemoths, it’s impossible to hold them to account.

The FSU to campaign for new laws on financial censorship

The relatively recent digitalisation of financial transactions placed a vast amount of power in the hands of financial services companies like payment processors, banks, online platforms and credit companies like Visa and Mastercard. (Unherd). It is ‘FinTech’ that now owns and controls the technical, algorithmic means to move virtual money seamlessly around the world in real-time. For a while, the risk that these powers might be exercised to completely cut off and shut up groups, organisations and people seemed entirely abstract. More recently, though, we’ve seen governments leaning on these companies to act in ways beneficial to state interests (Money Week).

In 2019, for instance, the Russian government froze bank accounts linked to opposition politician Alexei Navalny (Reuters); in February 2022, Canada froze the bank accounts of the mostly peaceful truckers protesting against the vaccine mandates with no due process, appeals process or court order necessary (Mail); then, in early 2022, cross-border payment system SWIFT took the unprecedented move to cut Russia’s central bank from its global financial messaging service (Telegraph).

But that was all at the behest of governments. What’s new is financial services companies like PayPal throwing their weight about and attempting to influence what kind of speech is or isn’t acceptable on the basis of their own, decidedly woke corporate values.

Does that mean the withdrawal of financial services from people and organisations that express dissenting opinions on those topics is the new front in the ongoing war against free speech? Sarah McLellan, writing in Spectator Australia, certainly thinks so. Citing Jesse Powell, Chief Executive of Kraken Bitcoin Exchange, she argues that “the traditional financial system has essentially been weaponised” and that losing free access to funding streams on account of one’s political views is tantamount to losing free speech.

PayPal undoubtedly has form in that regard. Earlier this year, Rolling Stone contributing editor Matt Taibbi published a story about how the company has been selectively de-platforming alternative media sites that published stories contradicting some of the West’s reporting of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Among those to have been banned were Mint Press News, a left-wing web-based outlet, and Consortium News, founded by the late Associated Press investigative reporter Robert Parry in 1995 as one of the web’s very first independent, reader-funded news outlets.

More recently, we’ve seen sites that raise perfectly lawful questions about Covid vaccines also getting demonetised by PayPal, including the U.K. Medical Freedom Alliance. (As in Toby’s case, Liz Evans, the head of the UKMFA, had her personal PayPal account closed at the same time.) Law-or-fiction, a site run by lawyers and dedicated to helping citizens understand their rights and how they may have been affected as a result of the UK government’s response to Covid-19, suffered the same fate a few weeks ago. UsforThem, a parents’ group that fought to keep schools open during the pandemic announced just this week that its account had been shut down by PayPal due to “the nature of its activities” (Telegraph). And then there’s Conservative group Moms for Liberty, and the personal website of gender ideology critic Colin Wright, and… we could go on.  

As Matt Taibbi explains, “going after cash is a big jump from simply deleting speech and actually has a much bigger chilling effect”. This is especially true when it comes to alternative media or grassroots campaigning, where “money has long been notoriously tight”, and the loss of a few thousand pounds here or there can have a major effect on a project, website, podcast or whatever else.

Up until now, companies like PayPal, GoFundMe, Patreon and CrowdJustice have ‘only’ demonetised individuals and groups whose views they disapprove of. But “open for all” PayPal has just decided to close the account of the FSU, an organisation that defends people’s right to free speech, without taking sides on the issues they’re speaking about.

Is this now the benchmark for all subsequent forms of financial censorship? If so, then as Toby pointed out on GB News on the night the story broke, PayPal has just significantly – and singlehandedly – “narrowed the Overton Window”, ensuring that “there are now certain issues you aren’t allowed to defend people for expressing sceptical opinions about”.

That’s why, as the switch to a cashless society gathers speed, the Government will need to put laws in place to protect people from being punished by companies like PayPal for the expression of dissenting views. But what sorts of laws? “The challenge,” as Fraser Nelson points out, will be to make the case that “protecting diversity should also mean diversity of opinion” (Telegraph).

One possible solution to Fraser Nelson’s “challenge”, outlined by Toby in a comment piece for the Telegraph, would be for legislation to be passed “making it illegal for financial services companies to discriminate against customers on the basis of their political beliefs, provided they’re within the law”. The Equality Act 2010 does provide some protection for people discriminated against on that basis, it’s true; but not in the case of companies headquartered outside the UK, like PayPal.

The FSU is still working through the ramifications of PayPal’s actions, but one thing is clear: over the coming weeks and months, we will be lobbying the Government to put new laws in place to make it illegal for financial companies to withdraw their services “for purely political reasons”.

The FSU’s packed schedule of events this autumn!

Details of the FSU’s packed schedule of members-only events this Autumn has been emailed to members, so please do check if you’ve received that message (and let events@freespeechunion.org know if you haven’t).

Our upcoming members-only events include a live, in-person launch of Andrew Doyle’s brilliant new book The New Puritans: How the Religion of Social Justice Captured the Western World. The comedian, author, and presenter of GB News’s Free Speech Nation will join FSU General Secretary Toby Young on-stage in London on 27th September to discuss how we can push back against cancel culture and reinstate liberal democratic values. There’ll be plenty of time for an audience Q&A, as well as for audience members to purchase signed copies of The New Puritans.

On 5th October we’ll be holding our second Online Annual Convention. This event is exclusively for Gold and Founder members, so do consider upgrading your current membership package if you’re not a Gold member already. The Convention affords senior staff and the Directors of the FSU the opportunity to thank members for their continuing support and to report back on highlights from the past year – e.g., legal victories, case-work successes and the impact our behind-the-scenes legislative and policy work is having. It’s also an opportunity for Gold and Founder members to participate in a Q&A where they get to have their say about the work we’re doing.

Then, on 12th October, Toby will be joined in conversation at an exclusive Online Speakeasy by stand-up comedian, actor, writer and presenter Jack Dee. You can watch Jack’s video message inviting you to the event by clicking here.

FSU members will also be offered discount tickets to the Battle of Ideas Festival 2022 (15th and 16th October). During that event, Toby be speaking on a panel the FSU is sponsoring that focuses on the Online Safety Bill. The Free Speech Champions will also be partnering on a session about how young people can be persuaded to join the defence of freedom of speech. 

Finally, we’ve organised a members-only Online Speakeasy with Neil Oliver, the television presenter and former President of the National Trust Scotland – more details to follow in due course.

Roger Scruton Memorial Lectures 2022 – register for free tickets here!

Oxford University’s annual ‘Roger Scruton Memorial Lectures’ are fast approaching.

On 17th October, Chair of the Social Mobility Commission (and “Britain’s strictest teacher”) Katherine Birbalsingh CBE will be in conversation with the founder of the 30% club, Baroness Helena Morrissey, and Dr Marie Daouda (Oriel College, Oxford). Register here.

On 19th October, one of Britain’s most distinguished historians, Andrew Roberts, will be in conversation with Professor Robert Tombs, now Professor Emeritus of French History at the University of Cambridge. Register here.

On 24th October, journalist and writer Peter Hitchens will be in conversation with former Conservative MEP Lord Daniel Hannan and Professor Sir Noel Malcolm (All Souls College, Oxford). Register here.

Finally, on 26th October, FSU Chairman Professor Nigel Biggar (Oxford) will be in conversation with every self-respecting free speech warrior’s new favourite politician, Secretary of State for International Trade the Rt Hon Kemi Badenoch, and Professor Ali Ansari (University of St Andrews). Register here.

All events are free to attend, although registration is required.

FSU members publish free speech related books!

FSU member Andrei Yafaev’s work features in Diversity, Inclusion, Equity (2022), an edited collection from Imprint Academic that also contains contributions from clinical psychologist Jordan Peterson, and philosopher Peter Boghossian. The contributors to this book ― spanning five continents ― offer a stark insight into the dangers of equality, diversity and inclusion policies to free speech on campus and in the research environment. Hyper-wokism poses a serious threat to academic freedom and this volume marks the start of a fight back against those seeking to de-platform, harass, and censor academics who dare to tackle ‘forbidden’ topics. You can purchase a copy here. Another book you might be interested in is this one by FSU member Douglas Cormack.

And finally…

The National Trust will shortly hold elections to its council at its annual AGM, and the ultra-woke Trustees are doing everything they can to secure victory for their preferred candidates. So, if you’re a member of the National Trust, think about voting for the candidates being put up by the Restore Trust, the non-woke alternative: Bola Anike, Jeremy Black, Phil Bradby, Edward Bulmer, Philip Gibbs, Zareer Masani and Rosamund Roxburgh. The Restore Trust is also asking members to vote for its resolutions calling for an end to the Chairman’s discretionary proxy vote, which is a way of rigging the vote on resolutions in favour of the Trustees’  preferred outcome, and another calling for a National Trust Ombudsman so that tenants and other stakeholders have recourse to an independent complaints procedure.

Sharing the newsletter

As with all our work, this newsletter depends on the support of our members and donors, so if you’re not already a paying member please sign up today or encourage a friend to join, and help us turn the tide against cancel culture. You can share our newsletters on social media with the buttons below to help us spread the word. If someone has shared this newsletter with you and you’d like to join the FSU, you can find our website here.

Best wishes,

Freddie Attenborough

Communications Officer

Leave a Reply