Financial censorship involves the restriction of a private entity’s financial activity, in such a way as to inhibit their operations, with the implicit intention of rendering them silent. It is a method of suppressing freedom of expression. Attacking income and liquidity can have serious and highly inconvenient consequences, especially for an individual.
Often, it is a government who will instigate these repressive financial measures to silence critics and whistleblowers, or otherwise suppress opinions that they deem unacceptable. Methods frequently employed would include the freezing of assets, seizing income, and prohibiting the ability to receive funding.
Legal issues surrounding financial censorship
Using extrajudicial financial methods of censorship is an affront to the concept of civil liberties. In the U.S., the First Amendment protects the right to free speech and individuals should always be considered innocent until proven guilty, in law. Therefore, any attempt to subvert these principles is highly problematic.
Edward Snowden is the NSA contractor who leaked confidential documents relating to a U.S. government mass surveillance policy in 2013. He was charged under the Espionage Act after fleeing to Hong Kong, where he met with reporters to release a series of articles. Snowden then tried to reach South America with the intention of avoiding extradition, but suppression of his passport by the U.S. government caused him to become trapped in Moscow.
Snowden has now written a book called ‘Permanent Record,’ about this state spying and his own story. The U.S. government is currently trying to seize the proceeds of this book under the auspices that the draft was not submitted for approval. Banning the book would not be possible without openly contravening the First Amendment, but as Snowden points out, ‘financial censorship is still censorship.’ New charges against the violation of nondisclosure agreements would result in Snowden facing trial in a closed court.
Having taken an oath of service to defend the constitution, Snowden felt compelled to expose the extent of government surveillance in the U.S. and abroad, as a violation of this constitution. He maintains that he did not swear an oath of secrecy to the NSA or the CIA, therefore the legal position is complex.
Using financial censorship in an attempt to silence a whistleblower, who has not been found guilty of a crime in a court of law, represents a severe case of state overreach.
Moral issues surrounding financial censorship
Further attempts to attack freedom of speech, through financial censorship, may take place in a more covert manner. Pressure can be exerted by the government against companies who provide online payment facilities by withdrawing their services from certain entities, or individuals, who are deemed to be undesirable in some way. Undesirable, in these instances, usually will mean someone the government wants to silence them.
Companies who offer payment facilities are not the best placed to decide the financial fate of government detractors, nor to influence what freedom of speech exists online. Wikileaks, for example, had their ability to receive income shut down, before they even faced any legal charges. Many other organizations and individuals have faced similar financial sanctions in an attempt to silence them.
Where no valid legal restriction exists, there is a moral responsibility not to interfere in such a manner as to potentially cause serious hardship, and restrict individual liberty.
A culture of censorship is pervasive among online platforms, where accounts can be shut down if the content is deemed too controversial. This can result in a loss of revenue and alienation.
While financial companies should be free to choose whether or not to support certain platforms or individuals, they should not be under any external pressure from the government, or other sources, to restrict financial activity. Such restrictions are often rendered pointless since those affected by any sanctions will usually be able to avail of alternative arrangements to bypass the blockade.
Increasingly, people are turning to cryptocurrencies to fill the void. By their very nature, many of these alternative funding methods are not susceptible to censorship and the Bisq application promises freedom to exchange cryptocurrency for national currencies, anonymously without registration.
Why opposing financial censorship matters to SFL
At Students For Liberty, we believe that financial censorship is fundamentally opposed to the principles of liberty, freedom of expression, presumption of innocence, and due process. Governments must not interfere with the rights of privately run platforms and service providers to conduct their business as they see fit. These entities should not be made to serve as a tool for governments wishing to silence critics by making it more difficult for them to access their own funds.