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UK government urged to act against censorship by financial services providers

The Financial Services and Markets Bill currently passing through parliament doesn’t do enough to protect users from arbitrary punishment, according to the Free Speech Union.

Hot on the heels of the controversial Online Safety Bill comes another piece of UK law that has profound freedom of speech implications. The Financial Services and Markets Bill is one of many pieces of legislation needed to replace stuff we previously allowed the EU to dictate. This process of reclaiming control over its laws also presents the UK with an opportunity to ensure they are fit for the digital age.

Financial service providers arguably wield even more power than social media platforms, since we are increasingly reliant on them to live our lives. Even shops and pubs are rapidly becoming ‘cashless’ (a process accelerated by hygiene fears during the pandemic), meaning that we are now given no alternative to the major financial service providers if we want to buy or do anything, let alone run a digital business.

It stands to reason, therefore, that there should be robust laws in place to protect individuals from being punished or cut-off by these financial service providers for anything other than the most serious reasons. Certainly, just as with social media platforms, they should surely be prevented from acting against people for otherwise legal acts or speech.

A couple of months ago PayPal closed three of its accounts belonging to journalist and founder of the Free Speech Union Toby Young, including one that processed membership and donations to the union. There were few reasons offered other than some talk of misinformation and it highlighted just how vulnerable individuals are to the whims of such companies. Young was able to bring a fair bit of public pressure to bear, such that PayPal eventually reversed the moves, but not before several UK MPs expressed concern.

It’s thanks to Young and the FSU that we’re aware of this new bill. Specifically, he emailed FSU members, urging them to write to their MPs about an amendment proposed by MP Sally-Ann Hart. You can see her full amendment on page 21 of this document, but in summary it seeks to legally prevent financial service providers from refusing to provide service to any UK person if the reason is related to them exercising their right to freedom of expression.

The speed with which the commercial world has become almost entirely digital in developed economies has exposed their legislative frameworks as obsolete, so lawmakers are scrambling to catch up. In the haste to become cashless societies we have once more gifted unprecedented power to a handful of mainly US giant companies. They will act in their own interests, not those of the general population, so it’s appropriate and vital that they are properly constrained by legal due process.

 

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