PayPal’s censorship marks a vicious new phase in the war on free speech

The Labour Party conference opens in Liverpool this weekend and the main attraction will, as always, be the stalls run by volunteers. The passionate, committed and usually humorous activists are always there, selling “never kissed a Tory” T-shirts and Corbyn memorabilia. There will be communist sympathisers, Venezuela apologists and backers of all kinds of lost causes. You can see it as wrongheaded, perhaps extreme, but minority voices are the lifeblood of a democracy. No one would question their right to be there.

Until recently, this was a basic part of British public life – eccentricity is cherished and free speech is offered to even the nuttiest causes. Campaign groups of any persuasion can open bank accounts, print leaflets and pay their bills. But in the digital world, life outside the mainstream is becoming harder. All it takes is to tweak a censorship algorithm then: presto! As the Socialist Workers Party once found out, the Facebook page can vanish. We were never told what the SWP did wrong, which is part of the problem: Silicon Valley’s social media giants answer to no one.

It all moved up a gear this week when PayPal closed the accounts of the Free Speech Union and the anti-lockdown Daily Sceptic with no explanation given. The latest victim is the UsForThem campaign, which sought to highlight the impact of school closures during lockdown. They use PayPal to fundraise, but the account has been suspended. Given PayPal’s dominance of the market, it’s quite a problem. …

If this were a supermarket using local monopoly powers to raise prices, the Government would break it up in a heartbeat. But with tech giants, it’s different. They are offering to put their huge power at the service of governments: in Facebook’s case, literally running adverts offering to work in “partnership” with the authorities. It’s as if they’re saying: if you don’t regulate us too much, we’ll make sure accidents keep happening to your enemies. We’ll clean up the mess, don’t worry. PayPal targeting lockdown sceptics can certainly be seen as a continuation of that trend of politicisation.