GoFundMe’s Ferguson controversy raises more questions about the limits of internet speech

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Over $200,000 has been raised on crowdfunding platform GoFundMe in support of Officer Darren Wilson, the police officer who shot Michael Brown, which has led to the widespread and well publicised unrest in Ferguson, Missouri.

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The fund was started on August 17th and apparently the proceeds will go to Wilson and his family to pay legal fees and “any financial needs they may have”. As you might imagine this has proved, umm, controversial to say the least given that the Officer killed an unarmed teenager in a situation loaded with racial tension.

By comparison, a campaign on the same website to raise money for Michael Brown’s family has so far had donations in excess of $150,000.

Understandably, there has already been a huge outcry on social media at GoFundMe for hosting the Wilson fund – with tweets like this:

In response GoFundMe hasn’t pulled the fund, but it says that it is taking down comments that violate the company’s terms of service.

What’s interesting is that this is another example of the phenomenon that I’ve banged on and on and on about – that without us noticing these internet companies are being required to make editorial decisions on what is and isn’t allowed. What’s astonishing given the potential free-speech implications is how little this is talked about.

If you’ll allow me to echo the same points I always make, but dressed up slightly differently: Should GoFundMe be forced to take down the fund because a large number of people on Twitter are opposed to it? Or in a free society should we be able to use our free speech and our cash how we want, in support of causes we believe in? And regardless of which side you come down on, who is to say that GoFundMe is best placed to make this decision?

Arguably, the case has echoes of the “Citizens United” US Supreme Court case in which it was decided that it is unlawful to limit contributions to political campaigns because restricting how someone spends their money is a restriction on their free speech. The upshot of this decision is widely fused as being absolutely terrible – as it means billionaires are free to bankroll candidates with unlimited cash, thus disproportionately influencing elections.

But for GoFundMe the implications are the same: Should it be policing how people spend their money? And if so, why does it get to be judge, jury and executioner? What’s interesting is the exercise in line drawing: Whilst I think Citizens United was terrible, and has made the US political system worse, I’m slightly more sympathetic to the idea of individuals being able to donate to causes they believe in (even if choosing to donate to support Wilson would be absolutely the wrong thing to do, in my opinion). I mean, what if I wanted to donate money to a crowdfund for ALS research, but the prevailing mood was opposed because of the amount of animal testing?

The line between acceptable and unacceptable when it comes to speech (and indeed, money), has always been difficult to draw – but GoFundMe shows how the internet has made things even more confusing.

James O’Malley