Amazon, PayPal and Spotify inadvertently fund white supremacists. Here's how.

The Washington Post/March 17, 2015

By Caitlin Dewey, a Web site you probably do not encounter in your standard Internet travels, exists to advance the books of noted neo-Nazis and the creation of an all-white nationalist state., a site visited by 80 million people daily, exists to sell things.

But for the past five years, Amazon and Counter Currents have been entwined in a little-seen symbiosis: Counter Currents belongs to Amazon’s Affiliates program, which means it funnels traffic to the Amazon store. In exchange, Amazon sends Counter Currents a percentage of the sale — 7 percent or more.

Counter Currents made more than $5,000 through the program between 2010 and 2012, according to its own reports. And according to Heidi Beirich, who directs research at the Southern Poverty Law Center, a noted civil-rights advocacy group, it’s only one of a number of white supremacist groups that Amazon inadvertently funds through Affiliates. Neither Amazon nor its public relations firm responded to multiple requests for comment, which is not unusual for stories involving the company.

In fact, in a series of research reports — the latest of which was released last week — the SPLC identifies three major Internet companies that white supremacist groups use to finance their activities, including Amazon, PayPal and Spotify. And those corporations aren’t doing it unknowingly, either: In all three cases, they’ve been contacted repeatedly by the SPLC and have either declined to enforce their existing policies against hate speech or simply have not replied.

“I have contacted them and explained, ‘You are literally funding hate groups,’ ” Beirich said. “But they never respond. … Someone says they’re concerned, they’re looking into it, they’ll get back to you soon — then, nothing. You never hear back.”

Without financial disclosures from the Internet companies and groups in question, it’s impossible to quantify exactly how much money white supremacists are making from this scheme, or how much money the arrangement is making for tech companies. In most cases, these groups keep their financial details private. That said, companies like PayPal and Spotify make it clear exactly how they divide profits with users, which provides a general sketch of what any profit-sharing looks like.

PayPal — the “banking system of the hate movement,” Beirich says — collects a 2.9 percent fee on payments sent. Translation: During Counter Currents’ last summer fundraiser, during which the group earned $40,372, PayPal stood to make more than $1,000. As of last spring, at least 69 SPLC-designated “hate groups” used PayPal, according to that organization.

“PayPal’s policies prohibit individuals and groups from using PayPal to promote hate, violence or racial intolerance, or to call for violence of any kind against any group,” a PayPal spokesman said. “We assess potential violations of our policy objectively on a case-by-case basis.” PayPal would not elaborate on that process, other than to say that the company has “a team dedicated to investigations.”

Spotify, per its own figures, collects 30 percent of the total revenue from songs streamed on its service — including albums with names like “White Pride White Passion.” (In a statement to The Post, Spotify said it “takes these issues very seriously,” and that it “proactively” removes songs and artists across its sites when they are flagged by a German review board.)

And Amazon, through the affiliate program, distributes between 7 and 10 percent of referred sales to its “partners;” Nazi flags, Swastika pins and other “white pride” memorabilia also sell in Amazon’s “Marketplace,” where Amazon collects fees of 8 to 45 percent. To become a member of the affiliates program, Amazon requires applicants to confirm that their sites do not “promote discrimination, or employ discriminatory practices, based on race, sex, religion,” or a number of other categories. That does not appear to have stopped several white supremacist groups from slipping through. (Amazon’s founder and chief executive, Jeffrey P. Bezos, is also the owner of The Washington Post.)

“These are normal, corporate businesses,” a frustrated Beirich said, “and they’re providing services to the white supremacy movement.”

To be clear, of course, nothing legally prevents companies like Amazon from doing business with neo-Nazis, raging misogynists or anyone else. But PayPal’s terms of service explicitly ban the promotion of “hate, violence or racial intolerance,” and Spotify and Amazon both have similar policies — as do sites like, say, Facebook. The difference, Beirich says, is that Facebook has enforced its policy strenuously, while these other sites have not.

To some extent, that discrepancy would seem to speak to larger difficulties around policing hate groups and hate speech on the Internet, a problem criminologists have documented since the 1990s. Private companies, like Facebook or Amazon or The Washington Post, can moderate speech as they see fit. Still, says Brian Blakemore, the head of the Police Sciences division at the University of South Wales and the co-editor, with Imran Awan, of a recent book on cyber-hate, there’s some cultural resistance against Internet moderation in favor of absolute free speech.

“My own personal view is that Internet companies are not doing enough to tackle cyber-hate,” said Awan, the deputy director of the Centre for Applied Criminology at Birmingham City University. “I have twice given evidence before [British Parliament] on Islamophobia and both times argued that sites … have been neglectful and not willing to act because of freedom of speech.”

But part of the problem is also logistical, Awan and Blakemore both point out. Companies like Amazon and Paypal process billions of transactions from millions of buyers and sellers each week, which makes policy enforcement a huge and difficult task. These sites also operate in dozens of countries around the world, which makes choosing one standardized policy fairly difficult. What’s offensive in France might not be in Brazil. What an American civil rights group sees as “advocating violence” could look like political speech to another viewer, in another light.

It’s telling, for instance, that Spotify — though it’s headquartered in Stockholm and London, and though it operates in dozens of countries — removes music from all of its markets according to standards set in Germany, where violations are punishable by law.

“I guess the question for Paypal and Amazon is, which organisations do they listen to when they are lobbied to remove an offensive product or service?” Blakemore told The Post by e-mail. “It could be argued by them that the SPLC is just a lobby group like any other and if you listen to one you listen to them all. … It’s a rather weak argument in my mind, but there you are.”

Meanwhile, many experts point out that — even if funding for racist publishers, blogs and bands dries up — those publishers, blogs and bands are unlikely to stop their work. Jack Levin, a criminologist at Northeastern University, points out that white supremacists and other fringe political groups haven’t been dissuaded even by lawsuits that cost them millions of dollars, simply because they’re not motivated by money.

“Hate groups have existed on- and offline with a minimum of funding,” he said. “PayPal might be a major method for sending ‘tips’ to Counter Current authors, but hate on the Internet can survive in its absence. … They write to inform the public or to persuade the public to their way of thinking. Money is pretty much irrelevant.”

The SPLC’s recent victories would seem to bear that out: iTunes recently took down albums from several bands that promoted violence against Jews and African Americans, but those bands’ albums are still available on eBay, Amazon and (“the largest and most active National Socialist party in America today”), among other sites; in 2013, PayPal suspended the accounts of both Stormfront and the Vanguard News Network. Those sites are still online.

At this time last year, both VDARE, a radical white nationalist site, and Pioneer Little Europe, which advocates the creation of all-white communes, were using Amazon and PayPal — and begging their users to do the same, the SPLC reports. (In December 2013, VDARE even ran a banner atop its site urging people to shop for Christmas gifts at Amazon, where “we get a commission on any purchases you make.”) As of today, however, both sites have switched to in-house services, the result of — per PLE — “enemies against our way of life … harassing service providers.”

Even though PLE is now soliciting donations by snail mail, it’s still publishing on topics like “do whites in South Africa have human rights?”

Still, Beirich, of the Southern Poverty Law Center, argues that disrupting these groups’ funding would at least help disrupt their activities, a correlation that’s been echoed by Greg Johnson, Counter Currents’ own editor in chief. Counter Currents has long disputed SPLC’s characterization of its work — SPLC is “a powerful Southern Jewish hate group,” one writer for the site said in 2013 — but it is right, Johnson wrote last year, that losing Paypal and Amazon services “could slow [Counter Currents] momentum … [and] stunt its growth.”

There’s a principle at play here, too, Beirich says: Amazon, PayPal and Spotify have policies against hateful and racist speech. Why aren’t they enforcing them? And why isn’t anyone else complaining? Internet activists petitioned Apple for diverse emoji and boycotted Facebook over a mood status for “fat,” but the petition-site is silent on subjects like payment processing for groups that advocate “white hegemony.”

That leaves Beirich and her team to sound the alarm from Montgomery, Ala., calling Silicon Valley offices and navigating voicemail webs and waiting for replies that rarely satisfy — if they come at all.

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