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Stripe Stops Processing Payments For Trump Campaign Website

Financial-technology company’s move follows last week’s riot at the Capitol. Stripe Stops Processing Payments For Trump Campaign Website

Stripe Inc. will no longer process payments for President Trump’s campaign website following last week’s riot at the Capitol, according to people familiar with the matter.

The financial-technology company handles card payments for millions of online businesses and e-commerce platforms, including Mr. Trump’s campaign website and online fundraising apparatus. Stripe is cutting off the president’s campaign account for violating its policies against encouraging violence, the people said.

Spokespeople for the Trump campaign didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

Stripe asks users to agree that they won’t accept payments for “high risk” activities, including for any business or organization that “engages in, encourages, promotes or celebrates unlawful violence or physical harm to persons or property,” according to its website.

The company has previously disabled accounts in the wake of violent acts. After a gunman killed 11 people in an attack on a Pittsburgh synagogue in 2018, Stripe cut off Gab.com—the right-wing social-media platform where the alleged shooter posted anti-Semitic messages.

A number of companies have cut ties with Mr. Trump’s since Wednesday’s attack, which left five people dead. Twitter Inc.  on Friday banned Mr. Trump’s personal account from its platform, citing a risk of further incitement of violence, while Canadian e-commerce company Shopify Inc. took stores run by Mr. Trump’s business and campaign offline.

Some political-action committees are also halting donations to Republican lawmakers who objected to President-elect Joe Biden’s Electoral College win after supporters of Mr. Trump stormed the Capitol.

After the election, Mr. Trump’s campaign launched a fundraising blitz to raise money for legal battles challenging Mr. Biden’s victory in several states. The effort brought in hundreds of millions of dollars for Mr. Trump’s political committees and the Republican party.

Updated: 1-14-2021

Stripe Bans Trump, But Donations Still Come Through

Visitors to the president’s campaign website are directed to WinRed, a Stripe customer, to make donations.

Stripe Inc. has stopped processing payments for President Trump’s fundraising apparatus. Directly, that is.

The financial-technology company continues to process payments for intermediaries that route donations to Mr. Trump, after cutting off his campaign for violating its policies against encouraging violence.

Visitors to the Trump campaign website who click on a button to contribute are directed to a webpage hosted by WinRed, the small-dollar fundraising platform for Republican candidates and political-action committees.

WinRed is a Stripe customer, and Stripe processes payments submitted over WinRed via that link, according to a review of its source code and people familiar with the matter.

The WinRed-hosted webpage tells visitors that donations go to the Trump Make America Great Again Committee, a joint fundraising committee composed of the Trump campaign, Mr. Trump’s Save America political-action committee and the Republican National Committee.

A Stripe spokesman declined to comment. Representatives for Mr. Trump’s campaign didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Stripe’s decision to stop directly processing payments for Mr. Trump’s campaign website following last week’s storming of the U.S. Capitol was something of an about-face. The San Francisco-based company, one of Silicon Valley’s most valuable startups, previously resisted calls from some employees to more forcefully police Mr. Trump’s use of its money-movement platform.

At a companywide meeting last October, Stripe Chief Executive Patrick Collison told employees that Stripe’s view is that elections and courts, not Stripe, are and should be the arbiters of democratic legitimacy, according to a recording of the meeting reviewed by The Wall Street Journal.

“With regard to our role as an infrastructure player, I think it’d be a real mistake for us to seek to supersede those more deeply rooted democratic mechanisms,” Mr. Collison said.

The violence at the Capitol last week—and Mr. Trump’s perceived role in stoking it—marked a turning point for Stripe, some of the people said. Limiting its ban to the Trump campaign’s account and not intermediaries that work with it demonstrates the tightrope tech companies have to walk when it comes to political speech.

The debate over how actively Silicon Valley should be regulating the content and activities of its users for years centered on social-media companies and consumer-facing platforms. More recently, it has spread to back-end service providers—firms like payments processors, domain registrars and web-hosting firms that aren’t viewed as having any editorial responsibility.

While many of the companies that handle the plumbing of the internet aren’t household names, the services they provide are indispensable. Parler, an alternative social network that served as a hub for organizers and supporters of the Capitol riot, is struggling for survival after Amazon.com Inc. kicked it off the internet giant’s cloud servers and Twilio Inc. and Okta Inc. blocked it from using their enterprise-software tools.

Stripe long made it a point to stay neutral with respect to the politicians who use its software to accept online donations. The company processed payments for both the Clinton and Trump campaigns in 2016.

While some Democrat politicians and groups used Stripe’s services, Republicans dominated the list of its largest political customers in the 2020 election season. Stripe earned $3.2 million in fees from the Trump Make America Great Again Committee and $1.9 million from Donald J. Trump for President, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics.

Its top customer on the other side of the aisle was the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which paid Stripe about $800,000.

As a private company, Stripe doesn’t regularly disclose figures on its revenue or payment volume. In September, the company said it counted more than 40 customers that each did more than $1 billion in payment volume annually. In comparison, for the 2020 election cycle, WinRed took in $2 billion in online donations for Republicans, according to Federal Election Commission data through Nov. 23.

On its website, Stripe touted a commercial partnership with Revv LLC, a fundraising platform that had “one million one-click donors that can donate across any organization using the platform seamlessly.” Revv’s founder is Gerrit Lansing, who has also served as the chief digital officer of the Republican National Committee and a brief stint in the Trump White House.

WinRed, the GOP donation portal, was built on top of Revv, and Mr. Lansing currently serves as WinRed’s president.

Stripe’s relationship with Mr. Trump and right-wing political figures and causes has rankled some staffers, according to people familiar with the matter. Advocacy groups also criticized Stripe for its business ties to hate groups in the wake of the Pittsburgh synagogue attack in 2018 and other violent episodes.

Stripe executives took action against a number of groups in the wake of such attacks but rebuffed calls to invoke its violence and extremism policy when it came to the president. Stripe asks users to agree that they won’t accept payments for high-risk activities, including for any business or organization that “engages in, encourages, promotes or celebrates unlawful violence or physical harm to persons or property,” according to its website.

During the October all-hands meeting, Stripe President John Collison, the younger brother of Stripe’s CEO, told employees that, in the past, lawmakers had questioned Stripe’s decision to cut ties with “super-fringe, far-right entities.” Doing the same to Mr. Trump, he said, would invite a much greater degree of scrutiny.

“You can imagine what an own-goal it would be to say we are effectively cleaving the country in two in terms of our preferences,” Mr. Collison said.

Updated: 1-19-2021

Parler Reappears With Help From Russian-Owned Service

Parler, the social network popular with the alt-right and conspiracy theorists, reappeared with the help of a Russian-owned web security service as the website hunts for a way around bans that took it offline earlier this month.

“Our return is inevitable due to hard work, and persistence against all odds,” Chief Executive Officer John Matze wrote in a new post, the latest since Amazon Web Services stopped hosting the site and it was banned from Apple Inc.’s and Google’s app stores. “Despite the threats and harassment not one Parler employee has quit. We are becoming closer and stronger as a team.”

Parler, which was dropped by the big tech companies after it was used by members to incite violence at the U.S. Capitol, is now relying on a hosting service from DDoS-Guard Corp., which is owned by two Russians, Evgenii Marchenko and Aleksei Likhachev, according to documents filed with Companies House, a U.K. agency that registers company information and makes it available to the public. DDoS-Guard’s website lists an Edinburgh location for its registered office.

Public data associated with the Parler.com domain name shows that one of the internet servers it directs visitors to is routed via DDoS-Guard. Another server, specifically for routing Parler.com email but not website content, is an Outlook.com address, operated by Microsoft Corp.

A spokeswoman for DDoS-Guard said the company was not hosting Parler and declined to comment on what services it was providing to the social media app. It confirmed it did store customer data as part of its offering.

On Sunday, Apple CEO Tim Cook defended Apple’s decision to delist the Parler app despite complaints from critics that the move impinges on free speech.

“We looked at the incitement to violence that was on there,” Cook said on “Fox News Sunday.” “We don’t consider that free speech and incitement to violence has an intersection.”

Parler’s domain name is now registered with Epik Inc., a website services company based in Sammamish, Washington, according to public records made available by internet regulator Icann. Epik is also the domain registrar for Gab, another less restrictive social networking site popular with the far right.

Most of the features on Parler.com appeared to remain down early Tuesday, besides statements from Matze and other employees. Members are unable to log in or post messages and the app is still unavailable in the Apple Inc. or Google Play stores.

“While we were not expecting Parler to move their domain name to Epik on the 11th of January, we are very thankful for the opportunity,” said Epik spokesman Robert Davis in an email. “ It has afforded some great discussions on how Parler can be an inspiring part of the progression and evolution of future social media.”

Microsoft didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

Before its ban, Parler — which has less restrictive terms dictating what members can post and was endorsed by some Republican lawmakers and media figures — had seen a surge in users as Twitter Inc. and Facebook Inc. banished outgoing President Donald Trump along with users and groups that supported the violence.

Updated: 1-22-2021

Federal Judge Denies Parler’s Bid To Force Amazon To Resume Service

Parler sued the tech giant Jan. 11, claiming it kicked the social network off its servers for political and anticompetitive reasons

Parler has lost an early bid to force Amazon.com Inc. AMZN -0.45% to resume providing web-hosting services for the social network.

U.S. District Judge Barbara Rothstein denied Parler’s motion for a preliminary injunction Thursday, writing in a 14-page ruling that the company didn’t meet the threshold for granting such a request. However the judge ruled that the court wasn’t yet dismissing Parler’s underlying claims against Amazon.

Parler sued Amazon on Jan. 11, claiming the tech giant kicked the social network off its servers for political and anticompetitive reasons.

Amazon denied those claims, saying it terminated the relationship because it found several instances of violent content on Parler in violation of its terms of service. One example Amazon identified from a post in early December said: “My wishes for a racewar have never been higher. I find myself thinking about killing n—s and jews more and more often.”

Judge Rothstein wrote Parler offered “faint and factually inaccurate speculation” to support its claim that Amazon violated federal antitrust law. The judge also wrote that Amazon has no obligation to host violent content, particularly in light of the U.S. Capitol riot earlier this month.

“That event was a tragic reminder that inflammatory rhetoric can—more swiftly and easily than many of us would have hoped—turn a lawful protest into a violent insurrection,” the judge wrote. “The Court rejects any suggestion that the public interest favors requiring [Amazon Web Services] to host the incendiary speech that the record shows some of Parler’s users have engaged in.”

Parler Chief Executive John Matze couldn’t immediately be reached for comment.

An Amazon representative said in a statement that the company welcomed the court’s “careful” ruling. “This was not a case about free speech,” the statement said. “It was about a customer that consistently violated our terms of service by allowing content to be published on their website that actively encouraged violence.”

Parler launched in 2018 and promoted itself as a free-speech hub with looser content-moderation rules than larger platforms such as Facebook Inc. and Twitter Inc. The social network had a steep surge in interest around last year’s presidential election, especially among conservatives who expressed discontent with how other services policed speech.

But Parler came under significant scrutiny in the wake of the Capitol riot, as it had served as a hub for people alleged to have organized, participated in or celebrated the attack, as well as a forum for some who had posted about future violent actions around the inauguration. Parler executives have said they had been bolstering content-moderation efforts in recent months and acknowledged delays in addressing instances of threats on the platform prior to the Capitol riot.

Amazon was one of several vendors that severed ties with Parler earlier this month over the social network’s content-moderation rules, though its actions were the most damaging because it caused the company’s website and apps to go dark.

On Thursday, Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D., N.Y.), chairwoman of the House Oversight Committee, sent a letter to the Federal Bureau of Investigation requesting an investigation into the role Parler played in the attack. Ms. Maloney also asked the agency to review Parler’s financing.

Parler is backed by investors such as Republican donor Rebekah Mercer, the daughter of hedge-fund investor Robert Mercer, and conservative talk-show host Dan Bongino. The Mercers have previously financed a number of conservative causes.

To resume operations, Parler has so far turned to internet-services provider Epik Inc. to serve as its web-domain registrar after DreamHost LLC dropped it as a customer.

Parler’s website was updated late last week with a post from Mr. Matze, which was followed by a few more from prominent conservatives such as Fox News host Sean Hannity. A message entitled “Technical Difficulties” tells visitors that Parler plans to welcome users back soon.

However, tech-industry officials say Parler would need to turn to a cloud-services host similar to Amazon in order to support the number of users the social network had. Company officials have said Parler had as many as 15 million users. Twitter reported last fall it had 187 million daily users, while Facebook said it had 1.82 billion daily users.

Updated: 2-7-2021

Parler CEO Says He Was Fired As Platform Neared Restoring Service

Moderation-light social media platform was forced offline by tech giants last month in wake of Capitol riot by Trump supporters.

Parler, a moderation-light social-media network that was forced offline last month by tech giants over how it policed its content, has fired its chief executive amid a dispute over the platform’s future.

John Matze, the former CEO, said he was fired on Friday by the company’s board as the platform was within days of restoring service to its roughly 15 million users. He said the board is currently controlled by conservative political donor Rebekah Mercer.

“Over the past few months, I’ve met constant resistance to my product vision, my strong belief in free speech and my view of how the Parler site should be managed,” he said in a statement. “For example, I advocated for more product stability and what I believe is a more effective approach to content moderation.”

Dan Bongino, a conservative talk-show host who has invested in Parler, responded with a Facebook video saying that Mr. Matze bore responsibility for “really bad decisions” that led to Parler being taken offline as well as problems with the app’s stability.

“John decided to make this public, not us, “ Mr. Bongino said. “We were handling it like gentlemen.”

The immediate impact on Parler’s efforts to restore service to its roughly 15 million users isn’t clear, though a person familiar with the company said that Mr. Matze had created Parler’s original code. Mr. Matze told the Journal that the site had overcome most of the hurdles to restoring service both through its website and for people who had previously downloaded its app.

“Anybody who still had the app could have gotten on it” when service is restored, he said. “But no new accounts.”

Mr. Matze said that before he was fired he had been seeking to adjust the platform’s moderation rules in ways that would allow Parler to return to Google’s and Apple Inc.’s app stores.

Representatives for Parler and Ms. Mercer couldn’t be reached for comment on Mr. Matze’s firing or the timing of Parler’s relaunch.

In the months following the U.S. presidential election, Parler carved out a niche but rapidly growing place in social media by wooing conservatives disaffected by mainstream platforms’ efforts to label certain speech and ban users who they deemed to have violated their guidelines around hate speech, misinformation and false claims of victory by former President Donald Trump.

Parler’s rules forbid criminal activity and threats, but the platform left moderation up to community “jurors,” users who addressed content violations and were paid part-time.

Major tech platforms took issue with that approach in the wake of the storming of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 by Trump supporters, alleging that Parler failed to adequately police the platform.

Some Parler users posted threats ahead of the deadly attack on the Capitol, and others uploaded photos and videos of themselves during the riot, according to researchers and screenshots of posts viewed by The Wall Street Journal.

Amid a pressure campaign by liberal activist group Sleeping Giants, Apple and Alphabet Inc.’s Google suspended new downloads of the app. Amazon Web Services then followed suit, forcing the platform offline on Jan. 11.

While Parler’s initial goal was merely to get back online for existing users after Amazon’s termination of service, Mr. Matze told the Journal that he had wanted to find a way to eventually make Parler available for download again through Google and Apple, allowing it to be added to new user devices.

In the weeks before his termination, Mr. Matze said, he had proposed the introduction of some automated content moderation as well as a ban on entities affiliated with designated domestic terror organizations.

“There are a lot of neo-Nazi groups that would fall under that category,” he said.

Mr. Matze said it wasn’t clear to him where Parler’s board stood on those proposals. But Mr. Bongino’s response on Wednesday suggested that Parler’s backers hadn’t been willing to compromise.

“We could have been up in a week if we just would have bent the knee,” Mr. Bongino said, adding that Parler intended to fight back against the tech platforms. “The vision of the company as a free-speech site and a stable product, immune and hardened to cancel culture, was ours.”

Ms. Mercer, daughter of hedge-fund investor Robert Mercer, is among the company’s financial backers, the Journal reported in November. The Mercers have previously financed a number of conservative causes.

Ms. Mercer said in a post on the platform that she “started Parler to provide a neutral platform for free speech, as our founders intended.”

 

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