Tech giant PayPal announced Monday a new initiative against radical politics online. Working with the Anti-Defamation League, the League of United Latin American Citizens, and other groups, PayPal will track and shut down financial networks that "that support extremist and hate movements."
The language of the press release is ambiguous, but suggests that PayPal will go beyond earlier efforts to avoid hosting illegal activities. The targets are not only criminals or paramilitaries but individuals or organizations "profiting from all forms of hate and bigotry against any community."
Online racists are not an appealing constituency, but this arrangement is a bad precedent. It's not only a question of what users will be able to post in public, as with social media platforms. PayPal threatens to limit the ability of individuals or organizations that it deems intolerable to engage in private financial transactions.
Even worse, the judgment about what language or opinions stand beyond the limits of toleration will be outsourced to activists with their own agendas. Even if they start out narrowly-tailored, it's likely that triggers for investigations and bans will extend from threats, harassment, and conspiracy to the latest left-wing shibboleths. The list of topics on the ADL Center for Extremism website — including bullying in educational settings, "anti-transgender rhetoric", and "women's equity" — makes it clear that the group's definition of extremism is not limited to terrorism, organized crime, or other direct threats to constitutional government.
The PayPal initiative justifies fears that the leading platforms are hostile to the spirit, if not the letter, of the First Amendment. The goal is to make it as difficult as possible to organize around offensive but legal ideas. The financial and tech industries have a legitimate interest in disentangling themselves from crime and political violence. But they and their non-profit allies are unreliable guardians of civic discourse.