Cut­ting off pay routes of bias groups

PayPal, credit card com­pa­nies and other pay­ment pro­ces­sors are shun­ning hate or­ga­ni­za­tions.

Los Angeles Times - - BUSINESS - By James Ru­fus Koren

For years, Richard Spencer’s white na­tion­al­ist think tank, the Na­tional Pol­icy In­sti­tute, was able to ac­cept do­na­tions on­line through its PayPal ac­count and through credit card pay­ments pro­cessed by San Fran­cisco start-up Stripe.

And those on­line chan­nels ac­counted for the vast ma­jor­ity of NPI’s sup­port. Now, in the wake of the deadly rally in Char­lottesville, Va., and a crack­down on white su­prem­a­cist groups by some tech com­pa­nies, that once-wide-open door is quickly clos­ing.

PayPal shut down NPI’s ac­count ear­lier this week. And on Thurs­day, Stripe ap­peared to have ceased pro­cess­ing credit card pay­ments for the group.

Spencer con­firmed that an ac­count with a pay­ment pro­ces­sor, one he said had worked with his group for years, had been closed, but he would not iden­tify Stripe by name. (NPI’s do­na­tion page in­cluded Stripe com­puter code on Wed­nes­day.)

“This is a huge ob­sta­cle we’re go­ing to have to over­come,” Spencer said. “I do oc­ca­sion­ally get a $25 check in the mail, but for every one check, I get 100 $25 do­na­tions on­line.”

Ad­vo­cacy groups and law­mak­ers have for years pushed credit card net­works and other big play­ers in the pay­ment sys­tem to block par­tic­u­lar types of bad ac­tors, from com­pa­nies that pub­lish crim­i­nal mug shots on­line — with the prom­ise of tak­ing them down for a price — to anti-gay and anti-Mus­lim groups to Wik­ileaks.

Some of those cam­paigns have had wins here and there, but now, af­ter Char­lottesville, there’s been a flurry of ac­tiv­ity by pay­ment providers to cut off ac­cess to on­line pay­ments for white su­prem­a­cist, white na­tion­al­ist and neo-Nazi groups.

Along with PayPal and Stripe, which have shut down nu­mer­ous ac­counts, Ap­ple said its Ap­ple Pay ser­vice would no longer be a pay­ment op­tion for web­sites that sell white na­tion­al­ist- or Nazi-themed ap­parel.

“As a com­pany, through our ac­tions, our prod­ucts and our voice, we will al­ways work to en­sure that every-

one is treated equally and with re­spect,” Ap­ple Chief Ex­ec­u­tive Tim Cook said in an email to em­ploy­ees.

On­line ad­vo­cacy group Color of Change has been push­ing credit card com­pa­nies for months to cut off hate groups. This week, it stepped up its cam­paign with the launch of web­site Blood­money.org, which calls out credit card com­pa­nies for “help­ing hate­mon­gers per­son­ally profit off their hate.”

The na­tion’s two largest credit card net­works, Visa and Mastercard, now say they have cut off some groups, but only if they be­lieve the groups have en­gaged in il­le­gal ac­tiv­ity such as in­cit­ing vi­o­lence. Card net­work Dis­cover went a step fur­ther, say­ing that hate groups will no longer be able to ac­cept its cards even if they do not in­cite vi­o­lence di­rectly.

A spokes­woman for Amer­i­can Ex­press said Amex cards are not a pay­ment op­tion at about 120 or­ga­ni­za­tions iden­ti­fied by Color of Change.

Still, cut­ting hate groups out of the pay­ment sys­tem en­tirely is not a sim­ple process, and it’s fraught with ques­tions about cen­sor­ship.

David Greene, civil lib­er­ties di­rec­tor at the non­profit Elec­tronic Fron­tier Foun­da­tion, said pay­ment com­pa­nies wield im­mense power yet are pri­vate en­ti­ties.

“Where we have to be re­ally care­ful is in­sti­tu­tion­al­iz­ing and nor­mal­iz­ing these en­ti­ties be­ing the mod­er­a­tors of what’s avail­able,” Greene said. “To­day it’s Nazis, but to­mor­row it might be some­one on the other end of the spec­trum.”

What’s more, those de­ci­sions are be­ing made by a web of play­ers, all of which have dif­fer­ent poli­cies dic­tat­ing what’s al­lowed.

Visa and the other card net­works don’t work di­rectly with the stores, web­sites and other mer­chants that ac­cept their cards. In­stead, that’s left to banks, which ac­tu­ally move money be­tween ac­counts when a pur­chase is made. But banks some­times don’t have a di­rect re­la­tion­ship with mer­chants ei­ther, re­ly­ing in­stead on third­party ser­vice providers such as Stripe and Square.

The card net­works them­selves have gen­er­ally taken a per­mis­sive ap­proach, ban­ning only il­le­gal ac­tiv­ity. Dis­cover aside, net­works do not ap­pear to have changed their think­ing.

“We gen­er­ally do not pro­hibit the ac­cep­tance of Mastercard-branded pay­ment cards by mer­chants based on our dis­agree­ment with spe­cific views es­poused or pro­moted,” Mastercard spokesman Seth Eisen said in an email.

Banks and the third­party com­pa­nies they work with of­ten have more ro­bust rules. PayPal, for in­stance, says users may not use its ser­vices for trans­ac­tions that in­volve “the pro­mo­tion of hate, vi­o­lence, racial in­tol­er­ance or the fi­nan­cial ex­ploita­tion of a crime.”

Rep­re­sen­ta­tives for Bank of Amer­ica Mer­chant Ser­vices, Wells Fargo and JPMor­gan Chase all say they have poli­cies tar­get­ing groups that pro­mote hate, vi­o­lence or ha­rass­ment.

Some rules are quite vague. Stripe, for in­stance, says it will block “any busi­ness that we be­lieve poses el­e­vated fi­nan­cial risk, le­gal li­a­bil­ity, or vi­o­lates card net­work or bank poli­cies.”

And it’s not clear how con­sis­tently any of these rules are en­forced. Though card net­works and banks say they con­duct on­go­ing mon­i­tor­ing, they also sug­gest they some­times move to block mer­chants only when com­plaints emerge.

In an emailed state­ment, Visa spokes­woman Amanda Pires said the com­pany shut down pay­ment ac­cess for sev­eral hate groups only af­ter the com­pany was given a list of of­fen­sive groups. She said the groups were blocked be­cause they were par­tic­i­pat­ing in il­le­gal ac­tiv­ity or were in vi­o­la­tion of bank rules.

Spencer said the com­pa­nies that have blocked pay­ments to the Na­tional Pol­icy In­sti­tute have cited non­spe­cific vi­o­la­tions of their terms of ser­vice. But he said that if NPI is vi­o­lat­ing those terms, it has been do­ing so for some time.

“They have changed their in­ter­pre­ta­tion of their own poli­cies,” he said. “We have been ad­vo­cat­ing for the same things for years; I’ve been us­ing the same lan­guage for years.”

PayPal did not re­spond to re­quests for com­ment. Stripe spokesman Ted Ladd said he could not com­ment on spe­cific users.

Still, Spencer said he hasn’t been cut out of the pay­ment sys­tem en­tirely. He said he had “some short­term op­tions.”

With­out PayPal or Stripe, NPI may be able to find an­other pay­ment pro­ces­sor. Or­ga­niz­ers of white na­tion­al­ist groups might be able to take other steps as well, such as ac­cept­ing pay­ments through per­sonal PayPal or Venmo ac­counts.

They could also try to mimic what Wik­ileaks has done. In late 2010, shortly af­ter Wik­ileaks pub­lished a trove of clas­si­fied ca­bles sent by the State Depart­ment, Visa and Mastercard blocked the site from ac­cept­ing credit card do­na­tions, say­ing it was en­gaged in il­le­gal ac­tiv­ity. But donors can still give money to Wik­ileaks, if in­di­rectly.

Click the do­nate but­ton on Wik­ileaks’ site, and you’ll be pre­sented with op­tions to make do­na­tions to two other non­prof­its — the Wau Hol­land Foun­da­tion and the Free­dom of the Press Foun­da­tion — that will fun­nel do­na­tions back to Wik­ileaks.

Rashad Robin­son, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of Color of Change, said it may not be pos­si­ble to cut hate groups out of the fi­nan­cial ecosys­tem en­tirely, but that’s not his im­me­di­ate goal. Rather, he said, he sim­ply hopes to make it harder for hate groups to raise money.

“If ev­ery­one has to write a check, that changes peo­ple’s abil­ity to do re­cur­ring do­na­tions,” he said. “It changes the amount of time it takes for peo­ple to sup­port these groups.”

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