The story so far.
After Toby Young got cancelled for cultural crimes four years ago, he set up the Free Speech Union to help others threatened by cancellation. The project prospered, it took on staff. Young expanded his activities into the Covid information wars via another start-up, the Daily Sceptic. Then, abruptly, Paypal cancelled him and them. A third of Young’s organisations’ revenues were processed by Paypal and the services was switched off with little notice and less explanation.
It was the first sign that Britain was going down the same path as the US where big tech companies are adopting political positions and regulating the speech of their customers, keeping them within official limits.
There was a row. MPs and peers rallied. They understand. They are classed by banks as Politically Exposed Persons and have their own difficulties with bank accounts and financial services. Enough pressure was brought to bear on Paypal – a notoriously difficult company to engage with through normal channels – and after a week, in late September, the accounts were restored.
Now read on…
Not three months later, at what counts as legislative warp speed, Commons developments will encourage those who value free and easy debate on controversial issues.
New MP Sally-Ann Hart tabled an amendment to a committee considering the Financial Markets Bill. If adopted, her amendment would prevent payment-takers from cancelling services. It was brave, it was decisive, it was withdrawn.
Andrew Griffith, the Bill’s showrunner, undertook to take up her cause if she didn’t cause the nuisance of a division. That’s what ministers do with inconvenient amendments, to deal with them. Normally, that’s the last we hear of these things.
In this case, the minister has outperformed his undertakings. And we know this from letters he has deposited in the Commons Library. He nails his colours to the mast on “the crucial role of payment providers in delivering services without censorship”.
Both the Financial Conduct Authority and Paypal – clearly jolted by the Hart Amendment – also wrote in to say they were moving with the tide of opinion.
After some weasling about their “Acceptable Use Policy”, Sean Byrne, Paypal Europe’s CEO said in his letter: “Political views are not one of the criteria for taking such action” (ie, of cancelling services). He also said,
“We are in lockstep agreement with the Economic Secretary on the importance of these matters as raised in debates by your parliamentary colleagues.”
Byrne has left himself room to wriggle, of course. On the other hand, Griffith’s stated course in the debate on his Bill yesterday, and in his deposited letter is pretty affirmative:
I empathise strongly with colleagues’ concerns on the principled issue and potential risks – of protecting customers’ freedom of expression – and whether or not it is possible for service providers with significant market positions to terminate customer relationships at will and at speed.
I therefore plan to take evidence on this in the forthcoming statutory review of the Payment Services Regulations, due in January 2023, which will be a public consultation.
Should the evidence point to the need for legislative change, I can confirm to Parliament that this could be delivered quickly via the powers being taken in the Bill in relation to modifying EU law (in this case, payment services law). Colleagues can be assured, therefore, that if legislative change is required, it could be brought about swiftly, without requiring future primary legislative change.
He will also issue an update via a Written Ministerial Statement after the evidence-gathering is complete.
This is perhaps an exhaustive account, but the devil dances in the details.
Minister Griffith did also suggest that Paypal’s behaviour could have been challenged via other regulatory avenues. And that “the example of Paypal does not appear, at this stage, to indicate a prima facie deficiency in the existing legislative framework for payment services, or represent a wider pattern of activity by payment service providers.”
So, there’s a way to go yet, but between Sally-Ann Hart and Andrew Griffith, it does seem to be going in the right direction. And by the normal pace of a legislature – at breakneck speed.