Our right to free expression is unquestionably the most significant of all of the liberties that we hold most dear. It is the foundation of every right that we enjoy as Americans and is the reason why society exists in its current form as well as the reason why it will continue to evolve each year so long as this right exists.
As we are well aware, the First Amendment guarantee of free expression only extends to censorship by state actors such as Congress, local governments and school boards. That’s why, when a private entity decides to suppress speech, we frequently tolerate a certain degree of censorship before reacting and resisting. No revolution is necessary to change the policy of even the largest corporations and no blood or death is required to strike fear into the hearts of private organizations. Instead, we need only to vote with our wallets and choose to transact with new companies that emerge as a result of the improper decisions made by the existing companies. Governments, on the other hand, do not provide us with this right; therefore, we must be willing to fight to the death to restore the principles we desire should the government overreach.
But what happens when a business with the same impact on your life as the government goes badly? Recently, the payment processing behemoth, PayPal, crossed a line by implementing one of the most alarming and totalitarian rules ever imposed on clients by a private company. PayPal, a company already reviled for its poor customer service and arbitrary rules, decided to begin assuming the role of the thought police by modifying its terms of service to allow it to collect a $2,500 fine in addition to freezing a person’s funds if they spread “misinformation.”
It is not difficult to imagine the consequences of a payment processing giant instituting such an oppressive policy, making it not only the arbitrator of truth but also giving it a stranglehold over a person’s livelihood when it disagrees with that individual. The chilling impact on speech was evident, for instance, when the Canadian government began to freeze the bank accounts of protesting truck drivers during the pandemic. It seems that PayPal, observing the effect Canada’s policy had on protests—essentially eliminating the protests overnight—decided to introduce a similar rule to establish themselves as influential speech moderators.
Misinformation is harmful to society and should not be tolerated. However, creating rules that permit a single body to determine what constitutes misinformation and what constitutes truth is inappropriate. Frequently, misinformation is just an unproven theory or a disputed viewpoint that causes dissidents to consider the opposition as the enemy.
Thankfully, PayPal reversed this decision, explaining that it was an error and was never intended to be included in the terms of service. Whether or not this is the case, it is evident at this point that PayPal is ready, willing and able to introduce repressive and restricted policies on the platform if public opinion shifts in the appropriate direction. If PayPal wants to improve its public image, it must explain in detail how and why the error occurred. Furthermore, PayPal should seek to identify the individual or individuals responsible and explain why they were granted the permission to amend the terms and even why they were permitted to consider those changes. In the absence of full transparency, it will be impossible for customers to trust PayPal’s word, given the company’s existing poor reputation.
There is no doubt in my mind that situations similar to this will continue to recur in the private sector and the chilling impact they will have, in the absence of a government response, will likely manifest itself once more. What, after all, prevents other large tech platforms or even traditional banks from establishing themselves as the arbiters of truth and denying access to money, the basic means of subsistence in the modern world to those who propagate ideas with which they disagree? The answer is nothing; the only thing preventing them from using this option is the market, but should the market shift in the direction of socialism, Marxism, or communism, this future seems less improbable and more inevitable. It is only a matter of time before the prevalent view of speech shifts from freedom to restriction. Even worse, once this day arrives, the chilling effect on speech will be so severe that there will be no going back, as the repercussions of speaking out against the platform will be too strong for the average individual to bear.
This raises the question of how far we are prepared to go to support the old saying that private companies can do whatever they want because they are not governmental entities. Private companies should have the flexibility to conduct business as they see fit, and this includes highly restrictive speech rules. Nonetheless, there comes a point when the notion of private company freedom undermines the rights that allow society to exist.
Today, we permit corporations to do whatever they wish because they have their own freedom of speech rights, allowing them to determine who can access their platform and what they can say on it. However, PayPal’s case renders this premise essentially worthless. PayPal is a global platform that processes more than one trillion dollars. Are we prepared to concede that a platform with near-monopoly power over our livelihoods should be entitled to impose onerous speech restrictions? A practically unstoppable force with considerably more power than the government should not have that authority.
This situation exemplifies the notion that corporations are the true government. Unless something is done to prevent it, the eerie scenario in which corporations dictate our lives will become increasingly plausible. Whatever the resolution, be it a constitutional amendment, a Supreme Court opinion, or some other agreement, the best we can do for the time being is vote with our dollars to ensure that the American people are not held by the neck and shackled to the unchecked power of corporate behemoths that seek to do more than conduct business, but to control our lives and our thoughts.
Follow on Twitter: @arightside