Fast-growing online payment provider Stripe announced on Friday that they were embracing transparency around government requests. When the company receives a legal request to shut down a user’s account, Stripe will send a copy to the transparency website Chilling Effects, a site maintained by EFF and law school clinics that accepts and publishes take down notices from across the web. Stripe is the first payment provider to participate in Chilling Effects. Stripe’s actions will help ensure that attempts by the government to silence sites by shutting down their revenue source will be open to public scrutiny and debate.

Stripe is also updating its privacy policy in order to commit to first notifying the user (when possible) if it is legally compelled to disclose a user’s private information, allowing the user to seek out legal counsel and contest the request in court. With these actions, Stripe joins the ranks of a growing movement around Internet companies to uphold free speech though transparency.

Stripe General Counsel Jon Zeiger explained on the company blog:

These issues rarely arise, and there’s no particular situation that makes this timely. We simply want to implement the right policies as early as possible, and we intend to build on these steps over time. For example, we’re thinking about ways to make data and statistics available in this area, such as what Google has done with their Transparency Report.

Our goal with Stripe is to help build the economic infrastructure of the Internet. Economic infrastructure, like other fundamental layers of the Internet, requires trust and transparency. We hope these policies increase both.

In the last few years, we’ve learned just how important payment providers are to upholding online speech and privacy. In 2010, after a series of publications that made international headlines, the whistle-blower website WikiLeaks faced a host of service providers shutting down its accounts. PayPal, MasterCard, and Visa terminated WikiLeaks’ accounts, leaving it with a crippling financial blockade. Other services providers cut the site off as well.

But one major company resisted government pressure. Twitter fought a secret court order to hand over private user data associated with the Wikileaks investigation, winning the right to inform the Twitter users that their data was sought by the government. In addition to taking one of the targets on as a client, EFF was inspired by Twitter’s actions to launch a campaign to promote policies of transparency about government access requests. Our annual When the Government Comes Knocking, Who Has Your Back? report rates companies on whether they commit to transparency about government access requests. 

Payment providers are a vital financial pathway for activists, dissidents, and other controversial figures, but are also all too attractive points of control for anyone hoping to use Internet intermediaries as censors for our online speech—especially governments seeking to censor speech. We saw this in the proposed Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), which would have allowed content owners or the government to pressure payment providers to shut down accounts on the mere accusation of copyright infringement.

In other instances, we’ve seen payment platforms succumb to the temptation to police networks even without direct pressure from the government. Last February, PayPal threatened to cut off indie publisher Smashwords unless they agreed to stop selling otherwise legal fiction that explored issues of rape, incest, and bestiality. EFF, National Coalition Against Censorship, and American Booksellers for Free Expression led a coalition of free speech groups in fighting back, successfully convincing PayPal that books like Nabokov’s Lolita and the Bible should not be censored by arbitrary corporate policies.

There are only a handful of payment providers available, and yet at least one is necessary so that donations, payments, advertisements, auctions, and online stores can function. These payment providers can exercise powerful control over the content permissible online; a website owner may be forced to abandon controversial content rather than lose a payment provider, even when the content is Constitutionally protected.  With its newest action, Stripe is setting an example for all payment processor to ensure that censorship requests are open to public scrutiny and users gain the knowledge they need to fight back against unwarranted data disclosures.

We urge all Internet intermediaries to follow suit and uphold transparency, privacy, and free speech by publicizing government access requests.

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