Government must use the Financial Services and Markets Bill to stop US tech giants deplatforming campaign groups who do not share their world view – by Baroness Fox

Yesterday I spoke in the House of Lords on the Financial Services and Markets Bill, focusing on one fairly narrow but I think important consequence of an increasingly cashless society: that is how a handful of mainly US tech giants now have unprecedented power over the public square.


Consider how any civil society organisation has to operate today. Consumer campaigns, pressure groups, NGOs, the third sector—all will be dependent on payment processes such as US fintech PayPal to operate in order to organise online payments for goods, services, events, and to receive membership fees and donations, et cetera. Can your Lordships imagine if these digital corporates took it upon themselves to freeze assets and suspend accounts with no notice or explanation, all because some big-tech apparatchik disapproved of the aims of such organisations? Surely such censorious demonetisation would be a threat to democracy. Yet this is not some dystopian future—it is happening now. SoI urge the Government to use the Bill to protect civil society organisations’ ability to conduct basic commerce regardless of their political views.


Readers of will remember the media coverage of events in September last year when PayPal deplatformed a number of UK organisations. Suddenly the Free Speech Union—of which I am a member of the advisory board—the Daily Sceptic, Law or Fiction, and UsforThem, an advocacy group set up by mums who opposed school closures during lockdown, had no way to process membership or access their own funds, had no ability to raise money and were made to feel like criminals. All their processing services were just switched off abruptly, risking their whole financial viability. Toby Young, who heads up two of the targeted organisations, explained at the time:


“PayPal’s software was embedded in all our payment systems, so the sudden closure of our accounts was an existential threat.”


Indeed, even PayPal’s co-founder Peter Thiel told the Free Press in December: “If the online forms of your money are frozen, that’s like destroying people economically, limiting their ability to exercise their political voice.”


Such financial censorship reminded me of when the Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau froze the Freedom Convoy protesters’ bank accounts last February. That was shocking, but at least it was clearly a political act. The problem when payment process organisations defund based on content is that they are often evasive and opaque about who it is targeted and why. PayPal gave contradictory and vague explanations last September, initially citing its acceptable use policy associated with criminality and hate speech, and later telling the Times that the accounts were guilty of misinformation about vaccines. Few were convinced. Miriam Cates MP told the other place: “It is hard to avoid interpreting PayPal’s actions as an orchestrated, politically motivated move to restrict certain views within the UK”, or, in the FSU’s case, even defending those expressing such legal but dissenting views.


After high-profile press coverage and Members from both Houses of Parliament—across parties and of none—causing a fuss, PayPal eventually backed down, reinstated the accountsand denied that there was any political interference. However, there is no room for complacency. When Sally-Ann Hart MP proposed an amendment to this very Bill in the other place, seeking to legally prevent financial service providers refusing to provide services if related to the exercise of the right to free speech, the Minister Andrew Griffin gave a robustly positive response. He stated that the Government respected “the balance of rights between users and service providers’ obligations … whether of the Free Speech Union, the trade union movement, law-abiding environmental movements or anyone else expressing lawful views”.


However, he seemed rather reluctant to agree with the need for primary legislative change and stated that the PayPal incidents did not represent a wider pattern. I beg to disagree.


We need to look at what has happened in the US over recent years—and think about whether it might happen here—where big tech companies regularly use defunding to regulate speech, so much so that in June 2021, a large coalition of US civil liberties groups wrote to PayPal and its subsidiary Venmo asking for transparency, due process and clarity behind this escalating practice of economic limitations on multiple varied accounts, from WikiLeaks to News Media Canada’s payment to submit an article about Syrian refugees for an award. The coalition, comprising eminent organisations such as Article 19, the ACLU and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, never even got a reply from PayPal. Also, less high-profile instances of deplatforming dissenting views are happening in the UK, for example with Patreon, CrowdJusticeand GoFundMe affecting our citizens. What is more, the majority of major payment providers grant themselves the right to block accounts of those whose views clash with Silicon Valley’s increasingly ideological corporate values.


This is why I announced my intention to table an amendment to say that, while I understand that private companies have a right to choose who they do business with and should be vigilant about fraud and illegal transactions, they should never discriminate on the basis of an organisation’s political, philosophical or religious beliefs. This Bill might be a place where we can put that right.



Baroness Claire Fox

Claire Regina Fox, Baroness Fox of Buckley, is a British writer, journalist, lecturer and politician who sits in the House of Lords as a non-affiliated life peer. She is the director and founder of the think tank Academy of Ideas.