Online payment service providers make it possible for users to send and receive payment online by acting as intermediaries among money senders, financial institutions, and payment recipients.

Online donations made through payment services can provide necessary financial support for a political cause, candidate, or activist group. Payment services can also ensure that consumers can purchase media online – like books or pamphlets from political critics – and that websites can process payments for their services, allowing them to continue operating.

Since payment service providers may provide vital financial pathways for activists, dissidents, and other controversial figures, they are attractive points of control for anyone hoping to use Internet intermediaries as censors — especially governments seeking to censor speech.

Payment services are also targets for powerful actors who want to shut down controversial sites under the guise of preventing IP infringement. Such proposals could halt the operations of controversial web services, including popular hosting sites like Rapidshare and Mediafire (neither of which has been found liable for copyright infringement), by cutting off their means of financial support.

Payment services might also decide voluntarily to stop processing certain sites’ payments as capitulation to government or industry, thereby putting small companies at risk and endangering their ability to speak online. This would not extend only to those convicted of crimes. Any online venue under scrutiny for controversial practices could be at serious financial risk if a big payment service decides to stop processing payments for it.

Examples of Targeting Payment Service Providers

Wikileaks’ ability to pay its operating costs suffered a serious blow when PayPal and other payment intermediaries caved to pressure to stop processing donations to the controversial journalism group – an obvious case of payment intermediaries being pressed into the service of government censorship.

The RogueBlock guidelines for payment providers block websites accused of hosting infringing content from accessing payment processing services. Status: active.

A set of Best Practices to Address Copyright Infringment and the Sales of Counterfeit Products on the Internet was adopted by payment processors in 2011. Status: active.

Members of the Centre for Safe Internet Pharmacies blocks websites that are contained on pharmaceutical industry-maintained blacklists from accessing payment processing services. Status: active.