Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Cutting Martin Sellner off from the payments system


I few weeks back I learned who Martin Sellner is. If you haven't heard of him, Sellner is a prominent Austrian populizer of remigration, the idea that non-whites living in Western nations should be sent back to where they come from.

In a recent tweet from his wife, Brittany Sellner, we find out that Sellner has been kicked off of by a long list of banks and payments platforms.

The companies that are accused of removing Sellner include German bitcoin exchange Bitpanda, a number of European banks, and payments processors PayPal and Stripe.

Should we support efforts to stop prominent remigrationists from making payments? It's a tricky question, one I've touched on before. What should be the ground rules for removing individuals with views like Sellner's from payments platforms? 

A bit of background first. Sellner isn't your typical advocate for the forced repatriation of ethnic minorities. He doesn't walk around with a shaved head or a swastika tattoos. He's personable, clean cut, well-dressed, social media savvy, and suave.

Sellner and his fellow Identitarians, the group to which he belongs, distance themselves from predecessor groups who have espoused versions of remigration, say like the neo-Nazis. Identitarians do not advocate racial superiority, hate, or violence. "We respect other cultures, we don't hate different cultures, we just want to preserve our own culture," says Sellner in this video.

To help spread ideas like remigration, Sellner has pulled off a number of stunts. These include crashing a theatrical piece in which all the actors were refugees and hiring a boat to sail the Mediterranean and harass NGOs that are helping boat people.

Although Sellner says that he respects other cultures and doesn't advocate hate, this doesn't square with the fact that any remigration would be an incredibly violent event. "I don't hate you. I respect your culture. I just want to kick you out of the country." What an incongruent set of beliefs!

How might remigration play out? Let's imagine how it would work in my home town of Montreal. (Yep, Quebec has its own Identitarian branch). Many Montrealers are members of a visible minority, including those of Middle Eastern, North African, West African, Latin American, and Asian descent. Laws would have to be struck down so that these people's citizenship could be revoked. Even the most despicable Canadians haven't been treated this way (think Luka Magnotta or Paul Bernardo).

Next, these new non-citizens would be rounded up and interned. Then they'd be sent down to the Old Port and shipped out by ocean freighter. Those who didn't leave peacefully would be hunted down, maybe shot. Any whites who helped them would become criminals. Whole neighbourhoods would be denuded of their population. Businesses across Montreal would suddenly cease to exist. Mixed-race families would be torn apart. It would be awful. 

Remigration is a violent idea. But at the same time, removing someone like Martin Sellner from the payments system is no small matter. Like garbage disposal service, or running water, or electricity, the ability to make payments is a necessity. If folks like Martin Sellner can't pay, they can't live.

The water utility generally won't sever the neighbourhood asshole's connection just because he's being unpleasant. Likewise, as long as Sellner isn't doing anything explicitly illegal, should he not be able to get access to basic payments services? If access to electricity, water, and garbage disposal services are all apolitical, maybe the same should apply to payments.

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I'd suggest the following way to referee this conflict.

We can think of the payment system as being comprised of backbones and onramps. A backbone is a shared piece of financial infrastructure across which a nation's payments/payments information flows. Any given country will have just a handful of payments backbones. Each one of them processes a huge amount of economic value.

For instance, one of the key American payments backbones is Fedwire, a large-value payments system operated by the Federal Reserve. In Europe the equivalent is Target2. In Canada it is LVTS. You probably haven't heard of these utilities. But they are vital to every one of us. Every time we want to make a payment, we are (ultimately) using one of these giant but unknown pieces of financial infrastructure. The utility bill you paid from your bank account last week? It was settled on Fedwire (or Target2 or LVTS).

Banks act as onramps to these backbones. Your account at the State Bank of Toledo, for instance, is your means for accessing Fedwire. Vancouver City Savings Credit Union is your gateway to Canada's LVTS.

Whereas the list of payments backbones is short, the list of onramps is long. There are 4,700 banks in the U.S. Which means there are 4,700 access points. In Europe, there are 1,056 financial institutions that directly participate in Target2. Canada has fewer banks, around 90.

Banks aren't the only type of onramp. Non-bank financial institutions and fintech firms provide indirect access to Fedwire and Target2. PayPal, for instance, is a popular way to make payments, but it doesn't actually hold customer deposits or have access to Fedwire. Rather, all customer funds are custodied at JP Morgan, PayPal's banker. So PayPal account owners get access to Fedwire via JP Morgan.

I'd argue that backbones like Fedwire and Target2 should not be allowed to block Martin Sellner. So if an onramp sends Sellner's utility bill payments or his donations to be processed by a backbone, that backbone shouldn't censor those transactions.

Onramps, however, should be able to choose if they want to serve Martin Sellner or not.

Onramps like banks will often specialize in building up expertise in serving a certain set of customers (i.e. some banks may cater to business customers rather than individuals). Or they may have designed their brands to attract a wide range of customers and employees. Connecting Martin Sellner may not be consistent with an onramp's expertise. Sellner is a risky client, after all, one who has received payments from terrorists. A bank that lacks the ability to closely monitor his transactions should be free to ask him to leave.

Sellner may also threaten the onramp's brand. By connecting Sellner, the onramp could be damaging  its relationship to the rest of its customers, or put the onramp's commitment to its employees, many of whom may be visible minorities, at risk. Onramps should be free to protect their brands from being associated with remigrationists.

As I said, onramps are plentiful. While it might be a nuissance to be cut off by one of them, Martin Sellner will always be able to find an alternative payments provider. If not, he and others like him might consider starting their own onramp, say an Identitarian bank or First Amendment Payment Processing.

The same logic doesn't apply to backbones. Because backbones are often set up as government-enforced monopolies, anyone who has been denied access will have no other option for making payments.

Backbones aren't solely creatures of government monopoly. Strong market forces push everyone to use the existing shared payments infrastructure. The privately-owned Visa and MasterCard networks, for instance, are incredibly useful because everyone is already connected to them. A new competing card backbone can only become useful by attracting a large base of card users, but it can't attract this user base if it isn't already useful. This chicken & egg problem is incredibly difficult to solve. And so we tend to congregate around a few central payments hubs.

I think it would be dangerous to start regulating access to payments backbones such as Visa or Fedwire on the basis of moral fitness. The core service that a payment backbone provides—universal financial connectivity—is as important as water or electricity. Excluding someone from any of these systems could potentially kill them. We may not like Sellner's ideas, but don't forget that he's a human.

Once we start trying to rid ourselves of the world's Martin Sellners, we risk politicizing the entire backbone layer of the payments system. Other people who aren't so threatening could end up getting exiled simply simply because they are unpopular or different.

I'm far less worried about exclusion at the onramp level of the payments system. Even if PayPal or Bank Austria won't connect Martin Sellner, another onramp will. This doesn't mean that prominent remigrationists get off scot-free. They will end up atoning for the violence of their ideas by having to endure a constant stream of of inconvenient and embarrassing disconnections and reconnections.

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Which gets us back to the original tweet. The list of institutions that have disconnected Sellner is comprised solely of onramps. Not a single backbone (Target2, Visa, MasterCard, SWIFT) has removed him. I'd say that these results abide by the rough set of rules set out in this post: onramps, not backbones. So far, the cutting off of Martin Sellner has been a fair one.

And while being cutoff by PayPal, Stripe, and a few banks has no doubt been a pain for Sellner, there are still several onramps that continue to serve him. On his website, Sellner accepts donations to the following IBAN account number HU85117753795858688200000000. A quick search shows that this account is held at Hungary-based OTP Bank.

Donors can also pay him via SubscribeStar, a subscription-based crowdfunding platform. (Presumably he added SubscribeStar after being cutoff by Patreon, the more mainstream alternative.)

Sellner also accepts cryptocurrency donations using a Coinbase Commerce button:

Screenshot of Sellner's website from February 10, 2020

Coinbase is one of the worlds largest cryptocurrency exchanges. The Coinbase tool that Sellner is using on his site provides a relatively painless way for merchants to receive cryptocurrency payments. Using Internet Archive's Wayback Machine, I see that while Sellner has been accepting cryptocurrency for some time now, but he only recently upgraded his cryptocurrency payments option to Coinbase Commerce.

Coinbase describes itself as an "open financial system for the world". Perhaps serving Martin Sellner is not inconsistent with this philosophy. "Coinbase provides payments services to everyone, remigrationists or not." On the other hand, Coinbase's mission statement also includes the goal of "bringing about more economic freedom... and equality of opportunity in the world." Remigration is certainly not about economic freedom or equality. It is about destroying it.

A quick glance through Coinbase Commerce's terms of service specifies that an account cannot be used in ways that are
"threatening, intimidating, harassing, hateful, racially, or ethnically offensive, or instigate or encourage conduct that would be illegal, or otherwise inappropriate, including promoting violent crimes."
Sellner himself may be as gentle as a dove, but the idea his is promoting—remigration—isn't. One wonders why Coinbase has agreed to do business with him.

5 comments:

  1. Funny thing he could get a pseudonymous bank account(s) with no trouble by just paying some refugee 10€ to get through the security theatre KYC (typically show a passport during a video chat in Germany).

    But then you wouldn't be writing about him, the public martyrdom must be worth a lot in free PR...

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    1. "...could get a pseudonymous bank account(s) with no trouble by just"

      That would be illegal and could get him into big trouble. And why bother? Evidently he can already open legal accounts easily enough.

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  2. It seems everyone is forgetting that fungibility of money is one of its most important properties. This thing where legacy fiat payment networks and banks gone rogue cut active persons with money out of their services is dooming them. Once people like Sellner quit using Coinbase as their primary vehicle for interacting with Bitcoin, they will be a lot stronger.

    I also strongly suspect you give to much credit to "remigrationists" and whatever agenda they profess. Plenty of people promote dumb destructive ideas while getting mainstream blessing.

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  3. There's a fundamental confusion here about what constitutes acceptable speech in the public sphere. Sellner's policy suggestions are hypotheticals and hypotheticals are things citizens should be free to suggest in the public sphere without limitation. His views are no less palatable than talk about reparations in the United States, or a Communist utopia, or any number of things... depending on your point of view. It's just absurd to talk about it as anything but a betrayal of a fundamental liberal principle.

    Conversely, unpersoning someone financially is not hypothetical. It's a real action taken against a real person with immediate consequences. If it's appropriate to mention violence at all, it applies foremost to his treatment.

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    1. "...hypotheticals are things citizens should be free to suggest in the public sphere without limitation."

      Sure, I agree. If Sellner want to start a protest and walk down Main St, that's his right.

      But a platform like the New York Times or WSJ are not in the public sphere. He can't force them to publish his manifesto.

      Similarly, Stripe and PayPal are not part of public sphere. These are privately-owned payments providers that are free to determine their usage policies. If they refuse to allow their platforms to be used for selling hateful or ethnically offensive material, then folks like Martin Sellner will have to find other providers who accept his output.

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