Brenna Smith, an investigations intern at USA Today, revealed over the weekend that various defendants awaiting trial for their role in the January 6 insurgency at the US Capitol are resorting to underhanded tactics to get around tech platforms’ strict rules against transferring money to violent extremists. Smith and her colleagues—veteran reporters Jessica Guynn and Will Carless—conducted a meticulous investigation on a matter of great public interest. But no good deed goes unpunished. Not on Twitter.
“Congratulations on using your new journalistic platform to try to pressure tech companies to terminate the ability of impoverished criminal defendants to raise money for their legal defense from online donations,” tweeted Glenn Greenwald, a pundit and frequent Tucker Carlson guest, directing his ire squarely at the young female intern, Brenna Smith, rather than at the ideas presented in her piece.
Greenwald offers no evidence that these defendants are indigent, as opposed to merely cheap, but let’s assume they’re unable to afford lawyers. If so, that’s what public defenders are for. The right to counsel doesn’t entitle you to ignore the terms of service set by private companies. There’s no constitutional right to PayPal.
The Sixth Amendment guarantees the right to an attorney, but not to any attorney you want, and certainly not the right to fundraise however you want to afford them. DC public defenders are known as some of the finest advocates available at any price, so it isn’t even a sacrifice for an insurgent to accept a free lawyer if he qualifies for one.
Payment processors like PayPal and Stripe cracked down hate groups after a right-wing extremist murdered an antifascist protester and injured dozens of others at the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va. PayPal’s terms of service exclude those who promote “hate, violence or racial intolerance.” The violence criterion alone disqualifies the Capitol defendants who, although innocent until proven guilty of the specific charges against them, promoted a violent effort to overturn an election.
Smith and her crew at USA Today reported on Sunday that some January 6 defendants who have been booted from crowdfunding sites like GoFundMe are resorting to deceit to keep their fundraising going. They are swapping out usernames and switching platforms in an attempt to keep the money spigot open. PayPal’s hard line on hate groups is complicating the insurgents’ lives, because the company also balks at processing credit and debit card transactions from independent crowdfunding sites.
The right to a criminal defense is a red herring. There’s no rule against crowdfunding legal expenses, per se. Attempts to crowdfund the criminal defense of insurgents have not been labeled as violence in and of themselves. The bans apply to specific people who have been kicked off for prior bad behavior. These defendants gave PayPal et al. even more reason to ban them when they engaged in a campaign of subterfuge.
These technology companies are private entities. They can ignore, suppress, block or deplatform whomever they want for any reason. In this case, they’re using that power wisely, and justly, to thwart extremist movements linked to a violent attack on our democracy. We shouldn’t be complacent, however, and assume Big Tech will always act for good. But that’s an argument for tougher regulation, or even for publicly-owned digital utilities to safeguard our freedoms online.
Greenwald’s attack on Brenna Smith—who is an intern, I repeat an intern—shows now that he’s opposed to the only other meaningful check on Big Tech, lieu of government regulation: A free press that scrutinizes its behavior and imposes reputational costs for bad behavior.
Smith’s piece was straight reporting, not advocacy. The public deserves to know what the rules of Big Tech are, and whether they are being consistently enforced. People who disagree on the merits of PayPal’s rules can still find value in accurate reporting about what they are, as long as they aren’t blinded by ideology. Greenwald could cite Smiths’ reporting to make his case that PayPal is committing an injustice against the MAGA chuds. It’s telling that instead of thanking Smith and attacking PayPal, Greenwald chose to assail the intern instead of the billion-dollar company.
The Pulitzer-winning former top editor at The Intercept presents himself as a champion of free speech, but he demands that a young female journalist adopt a “stop snitching” ethic when it comes to insurgents fundraising online. The free press has no obligation to look the other way while insurgents hoodwink tech companies.