Act only on that maxim you would will to be a universal law
— Immanuel Kant
Last week online payment processor Paypal gave notice of an update to its user agreement wherein the following activities (as of Nov. 3) would constitute a violation of its terms:
There has been a lot made of the consequences for this ($2500 in damages), but I want to focus on the language in the policy itself.
First note that the violation is triggered if any of the conditions are met “in PayPal’s sole discretion.” In other words, before we even get into what those conditions are, we are told they can be met if PayPal says they’ve been met. You are in violation because they say so. But even though the “sole discretion” provision largely renders the details after it moot, let’s take a look at what some of those conditions are:
involve the sending, posting or publication of any messages, content or materials that… (a) are harmful… or objectionable or… (i) otherwise unfit for publication.
In short, as of Nov. 3, PayPal could unilaterally decide you are a violator if you post a message on the internet in your personal, unrelated-to-Paypal account it deems “objectionable.” In order to use PayPal’s payment rail, you cannot express yourself in a way its lawyers, corporate officers and anyone to whom they are beholden personally find objectionable.
Pause for a moment and consider how insane that is.
The online payment processor for which you signed up to send your buddy $20 because you thought the Giants would cover the spread against the Cowboys, and they didn’t, now believes it should be able to cut you off from its service because you said you were not mortally terrified about global warming in response to a Facebook meme. Only those who share non-objectionable beliefs (again, what is and is not objectionable is in its sole discretion) can use its payment rail. Apart from the wider ramifications of the policy — which I will go into below — the idea that PayPal — a money middleman — would fancy itself the arbiter of what beliefs are and are not acceptable is beyond ludicrous. It’s offensive.
Of course, PayPal going crazy and believing it’s the arbiter of right and wrongthink isn’t by itself a major problem because you could use Cash App, Strike, Zelle or some other competitor of your choosing. But the same pressures brought to bear on PayPal will also be brought to bear on them. If PayPal suffers no serious consequences for this policy, those companies, when pressured, will have the same incentive to go along with, rather than buck those pressures too.
We will live in a world wherein powerful regulators can condition access to society’s payment rails on compliant speech and permissible expression. Eventually, people will self-censor (as many already do now) because that skeptical question, that dissenting-from-the-orthodoxy remark is just not worth having to figure out an entirely new way to make essential transactions or communicate over the internet.
You might think, well, that’s all well and good, but PayPal recanted its position*, and anyway, not enough people will quit to send the message you want sent. Why forgo the convenience of sending and receiving money to your extensive network for an empty gesture that probably won’t have the intended effect?
That’s the wrong way to look at it, in my view — as though convenience is in one utility column and standing on principle in another. For starters, game-theory wise, it’s a slippery slope to a worst case outcome. If you draw the line early, you give up convenience once and never again. You rebuild your payment rail network on another platform, and the payment rails don’t try that again. If instead you cave to convenience every time a digital rail provider oversteps its purview, you live in the world described above where you are self-censoring to comply with the preferences of your corporate overlords and avoid excommunication.
But, perhaps more importantly, opting out of an authoritarian network and encouraging others to do so has unpredictable effects. No one knows the future. Maybe PayPal goes bankrupt, serves as an example never to do this. Maybe it survives but loses market share and never attempts anything like it again. Or maybe PayPal is largely unaffected and undeterred. No one knows or controls what anyone else will do. You can only control you own actions, and per Kant, “Act only on that maxim you would will to be a universal law.” The action is a moral imperative, irrespective of your speculation about the likely short-term result.
Pay no heed to the naysayers who argue it’s pointless because accountability is unlikely or impossible. The sense that resistance is futile is part of the psyop— maybe the most important part. Positive change only happens one way — when people who have had enough do the right thing. Do it and let the chips fall.