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Unregulated crowdfunding sites can fuel international crises

The Ottawa protests and border shutdowns were funded in part by anonymous donations from the U.S. Should sites that enable such payments be held accountable?

Demonstrators and vehicles block downtown streets in front of Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Feb. 14 as truckers and supporters continue to protest coronavirus vaccine mandates. (Blair Gable/Reuters)

The truckers who paralyzed Ottawa and blocked U.S.-Canada border crossings while protesting coronavirus-related restrictions have been supported through crowdfunding platforms, a situation that is producing its own series of controversies.

On Feb. 4, GoFundMe announced it was closing a campaign backing the “Freedom Convoy,” which had raised more than $7.5 million on the site. GoFundMe said that what was billed as a peaceful protest had become an “occupation, with police reports of violence and other unlawful activity,” violating the company’s terms of service. GoFundMe first said it would refund donations to anyone requesting them, distributing leftover money to charities chosen by the Freedom Convoy organizers, but after that plan came under fire, it made the refunds automatic.

Soon after GoFundMe’s announcement, figures including Florida governor Ron DeSantis (R) and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton (R) pledged to investigate the platform for not distributing the money as promised. Organizers promptly switched to GiveSendGo — a site that brands itself as “the leader in Christian fundraising” — where they’ve raised over $9 million and counting. GiveSendGo has made a niche for itself as a host for causes that GoFundMe won’t touch or has shut down. People arrested in the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, police officers accused of misconduct and homicide, QAnon conspiracists and proponents of vaccine misinformation all eagerly appeal for money on the site. The episode, in short, seemed to be mirroring controversies in which right-wing voices say they have been “censored” by social media companies such as Twitter, YouTube and Facebook — inspiring conservatives to criticize these platforms. (On Monday, hackers disabled the GiveSendGo website and publicized what appeared to be the names and addresses of some of the donors.)

Crowdfunding sites are different in important ways from other social media sites, as the truckers’ successful fundraising on GiveSendGo demonstrates. When extremist voices are kicked off mainstream social media platforms because they are spreading medical misinformation, using discriminatory and abusive language or making threats, they often find homes on alternative platforms such as Gab and Gettr (Twitter substitutes) and Rumble (YouTube). Those platforms often become unsatisfying echo chambers, however, because scale is key to a successful social media site. But with crowdfunding sites — where people only have to visit once to funnel money to the cause of their choice — any site willing to fund unsavory or unlawful activities can do so effectively.

The episode raises the question of whether GiveSendGo, GoFundMe and similar sites should be regulated more heavily than they now are (and more heavily than other tech platforms), given that they can be used to raise and send money anonymously across an international border to fuel protests tinged with violence. (Even before the hack, comments on the donation pages showed that a substantial number of contributors were Americans.) Such regulations might include requiring disclosure of donations to financial regulators in some cases, particularly for large international donations. Crowdfunding platforms might also be held criminally liable when they materially facilitate criminal activities.

Canada’s truck convoy is just a stunt in a country where populism is still taboo

Of course, it’s not always clear which protests will turn violent or include illegal acts. But in the case of the protests in Canada, local officials had clearly communicated that the bridge and street blockades contravened local laws — yet the money continued to flow. On Thursday, an Ottawa court blocked GiveSendGo from distributing donations, agreeing with city officials that the money was underwriting violence and harassment. Even so, at least until it was hacked, GiveSendGo continued to collect donations and to claim it would send them abroad to aid the protesters. If the truckers who ignored court orders to disperse can be arrested, surely it also makes sense to hold accountable the companies facilitating their actions.

It’s important to draw a line between unpopular or controversial causes — such as the legal defense of police officers accused of violence — and illegal ones. But as the House Select Committee investigating the Jan. 6 insurrection continues its work, those concerned about avoiding a repeat performance in Washington should pay careful attention to what’s going on in Canada and how it’s being supported. So should law enforcement officials preparing to deal with a potential American version of the trucker demonstration.

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Crowdsourced fundraising for political protest can be problematic even when illegal actions are not an issue. As the trucker protest began, for instance, the massive success of the GoFundMe fundraiser was held up as evidence that the truckers had significant grass-roots support in Canada. But the discovery that many significant donations came from anonymous U.S. donors (urged on by right-wing figures like Fox News host Tucker Carlson) threw the breadth and depth of support into question.

We’ve already seen — notably in the 2016 presidential election — how domestic populist and far-right groups and foreign actors can use social media platforms to further their agendas and disrupt domestic politics. Crowdfunding sites provide additional cause for concern. The success of the protests in Canada shows how crowdfunding campaigns can help to capture the attention of the media in the lead-up to an event, increase the apparent clout of fringe groups, and even put pressure on political leaders to respond to and compromise with these protesters. Contrary to the impression created by the fundraising and the protests, polls and health data in Canada show overwhelming support for vaccination, and strong support for government-led efforts to fight the pandemic.

In response to this crowdfunded protest, Canada’s House of Commons is now exploring tracking how crowdfunding campaigns channel foreign funding into domestic extremist groups, a move that U.S. lawmakers might want to emulate.

Governments, of course, should always be hesitant to restrict free speech — in the tech sector and elsewhere — and the proper regulation of crowdfunding sites demands careful study. It is certainly possible that requiring donations in some cases to be disclosed would be a better course than more-aggressive bans on supporting certain protests. But restricting the funding of illegal acts, it should be clear, is not the same thing as restricting speech.