Update January 2021: PayPal has recognized its error and re-admitted Prostasia Foundation as a payments customer. This blog post is left for historical reference.
Yesterday Prostasia Foundation received notification from PayPal that the account that we use for receiving membership subscriptions and donations had been permanently shut down, and that there would be no appeal. Before receiving this notification, we had received no communications about any problem with the account. To date, the only further communications that we have received have been this direct message on Twitter, and an email to similar effect:
It is common for PayPal to place such permanent bans on content creators who deal, even tangentially, with the topic of sex—and these restrictions have become even more extensive following FOSTA. These bans have affected sex educators, writers, artists, and YouTubers—especially women and sexual minorities. But this is the first time that these opaque policies have been applied against a child sexual abuse prevention organization.
Taking a very broad view of what might possibly be the relevant parts of PayPal’s Acceptable Use Policy (AUP) that we are alleged to have infringed, we have identified these prohibitions:
You may not use the PayPal service for activities that:
2. relate to transactions involving… items that encourage, promote, facilitate or instruct others to engage in illegal activity, … items that are considered obscene, … certain sexually oriented materials or services…
It hopefully goes without saying that we do not encourage, promote, facilitate or instruct others to engage in illegal activity. As a child protection organization we have a zero tolerance policy towards child sexual abuse, which includes the distribution of unlawful images and videos of minors.
It is, however, true that we write about such activities, and about the borderline between obscenity and legal content; particularly in our posts about steps that Internet companies can take to filter out illegal content, the interaction of censorship and obscenity law, the difficulties around sexting by teens, a guest post about the possible lawful and therapeutic uses of sex dolls, and how different censorship standards are applied to Hollywood than to marginalized communities.
The only interpretation of PayPal’s actions that makes any sense to us is that PayPal doesn’t want us even talking about these issues, because they are (admittedly) controversial—and that it is trying to censor us from doing so by cutting off the donations that support our work. But if we cannot speak about child sexual abuse prevention without facing censorship, we might as well give up that endeavor right now.
The effect of this unexpected ban on Prostasia Foundation isn’t the main issue here. In fact, we do have another payment services provider and although the ban has been inconvenient enough for us, we will survive this. In fact, you can go ahead and donate to us by credit card or cryptocurrency right now. (Sorry, PayPal.)
We also don’t have any problem with the fact that private companies have the right to decide what content they wish to host, and what customers they wish to do business with. This is the other side of the coin of the platform safe harbor protections that support users’ freedom of expression online—it’s written into Section 230, the law that FOSTA attacked. It was also the starting point for our #SexContentDialogue that we held this May and June (you can read about it in our last newsletter).
But that doesn’t mean that companies can simply turn a blind eye to the consequences of their decisions. Under the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, corporations have a responsibility to respect human rights, and the express purpose of #SexContentDialogue was to collaboratively develop a set of principles for how they can be more mindful about how they execute this responsibility when dealing with sexual content online.
The nine draft principles that we developed at #SexContentDialogue are still open for discussion on our forum. For example, they suggest that platforms should consult with affected parties before blocking or removing content, that their actions should be based on harm prevention and should be proportionate (for example, not terminating an account when a warning would do), and that they should be transparent about their actions, including giving reasons for their decisions and providing a mechanism of review.
Although Internet content platforms are improving their consultation, transparency and redress practices all the time, the financial sector has long been a law unto itself. At #SexContentDialogue, we were fortunate enough to gain a rare insight into the dealings of this secretive industry through a presentation by Cathy Beardsley, the CEO of a payment processing company, SegPay, that specializes in helping adult content providers to process payments.
Just to highlight one of the most ridiculous examples given by Cathy of red lines drawn by the banks, card brands, and intermediaries like PayPal, they will refuse to process payments from sites that allow sexually-themed illustrations of aliens—why? Because it infringes their policies on bestiality. Yet you won’t find any mention of this absurd policy in PayPal’s AUP document, nor anywhere else, because they are not transparent about these details.
Similarly, although Prostasia Foundation doesn’t host any explicit sexual content, there might well be some obscure unwritten policy that set off Prostasia’s permanent ban. We can only speculate about what it might have been, and without knowing more about what it was, we are in no position to contest it. This should be a concern for other child protection organizations, digital rights groups, sex-positive communities, and others who might unwittingly trip over the same red line that we apparently crossed.
Frankly, this isn’t good enough. PayPal may believe that it is only protecting itself here, but it is also actively doing harm to our cause of child sexual abuse prevention. That’s why in response to its actions yesterday, we have decided to expand the Internet platform transparency report that we currently have under development, to include the sexual content policies of major online payment services providers, and networks of such providers such as the U.S. Financial Coalition Against Child Sexual Exploitation.
What can you do to help? First, as mentioned above, you can lessen the financial hit that we have suffered by donating towards our work using a credit card or cryptocurrency—and if you’re going to do that, then we suggest you specifically support our work on bringing transparency to the child protection sector—and to PayPal.
Second, please add your signature to the open letter below. PayPal needs to know that its decision to block payments to a child protection charity has been noticed, and that we aren’t going to take that decision lying down. We may not be able to have PayPal reverse its decision, but the more public attention we can bring to the harmful and discriminatory practices of this secretive industry, the more pressure we can continue to build for its reform.
We’re depending on you—PayPal has tried and failed to shut us down. Now it’s time for your voice to be heard.
Image credit: Electronic Frontier Foundation