Patreon: A Threat To Free Speech

By Darren Smith, Weekend Contributor

What began as a laudable business model to fund individual content creators such as writers, bloggers, vloggers, and artists–providing many now with generous incomes aggregated from their subscribers–has devolved into heavy-handed practices antithetical to the basic tenets of Free Speech, small business, and the spirit of Self-Employment and  Self-Sufficiency. The platform exercises the worst kind of censorship, cutting off the incomes of individuals and their families for often arbitrary accusations of unacceptable speech off-platform or for association with those Patreon finds objectionable.

This censorship is not just for content hosted by Patreon, as many former subscribers to their service report that they are forced to walk a fine line in their own personal lives for fear that Patreon’s “Trust and Safety” team will take away their patrons and lifestyle for engaging in wrong-think or speech.

For those unfamiliar with Patreon the company describes itself as a funding source where, “Membership allows [content creators] like you to have a direct relationship with your biggest fans, get recurring revenue for your work, and create on your own terms.”–content creators being those such as artist, videographers, writers et al. Or, as Jack Conte states, “is a membership platform that provides business tools for creators to run a subscription content service as well as ways for artists to build relationships and provide exclusive experiences to their subscribers, or patrons.”

Among other tools afforded for the use of its subscribers in specific essence customer content creators may use the service to attract “Patrons” who are individuals or entities to fund their enterprise or content. In consideration of Patreon’s service, the company states it allocates five-percent of the Patrons’ pledges to payment processing, five-percent for fees on their service, and returns ninety-percent to the content-creator. Aside from a minor controversy regarding these fees several months ago, the company presents itself as transparent to what it charges.

If Patreon chose to limit its supervision and marshaling of members’ accounts to payment transactions, compliance with banking and credit card rules and compliance with applicable federal and state laws, it could maintain what I believe to have been a reasonable solution for a growing niche market of customers who wish to supplement or supplant their ordinary income and in a way that is neutral and liquid. Unfortunately, recent actions by Patreon show that its priorities have deviated. It has chosen a path of political idealism that threatens not only free speech, but in my view the long term health of that type of business model.

By its actions, Patreon appears to be using a political litmus test to decide which content it will permit to fund. Starting in the late part of this year the company began its purge of members espousing beliefs for which they do not agree, it is especially come to notoriety because it recently sacked one of its most successful revenue generators, Carl Benjamin, who Vice reportedly formerly earned over $12,000 per month from the Patreon Service.  Here is a video of Mr. Benjamin’s position:

While the above video is lengthy–the first seventeen minutes establish the row–I highly recommend listening to this as it brings forth most of the nuances of the problem Patreon faces with its perceived need to censor others. (One can adjust the speed of the playback using the gear-like icon in the video.)

The censoring and banning of Mr. Benjamin began to have cascading effects on other Patreon customers, both Patrons and Content-Creators. Often Patrons benefactor more than one Content-Creator. Those who witnessed the censorship of on of their artists voted their objection with their pocket book and closed their Patron account, leading to the removal of patronage of all their other donation recipients.  Here are three examples:

Escaping from the controversy and emotion that might be swept up in this latest dust storm we should look at the matter from a business perspective of the ordinary content-creator who desires to earn income from their work and speech. All things being equal would it be wise to trust one’s livelihood to an uncertain partner?

Trust is the basis for business. For myself, I am not willing to risk that a vendor or transaction processor will without warning take away my livelihood. Why would I do business with a credit card processor who might at some point not like an advertisement outside my place of business and suddenly close my credit card merchant account when half of my sales are transacted using plastic? In fact, I would honestly be foolish to place all my eggs in one basket and become dependent on a merchant such as Patreon. My overlord giveth and he taketh away.  They provide an income and then expect to control me as a result of that income. And from the examples alleged above, nobody in my view is truly safe.  If you say one act that the Praetorian Guard, I mean Patreon’s Trust and Safety Team, objects it’s time to close up shop.

To those who have a false sense of hope that because they might align politically or at least idealistically with Patreon’s management and are thereby safe, think again. I believe history shows that once an organization or a nation empowers itself to dictate behavior and begins decimation of its ranks of those who do not subscribe or comply, each successive iteration of the ten-percent purge further concentrates the realm of acceptable behavior until only the rule makers are the ones having sanctuary. Moreover, the loss of a diametrical opposition within the group, despite this as being the spoils of victory for the censors, only means the enforcers will turn inward in seeking out others to purge.

The danger that this manner of thinking shown by Patreon presents is it forces individuals to self-censor themselves and curtail their own lives for fear the likes of the Praetorian Guard might be looking. Furthermore, creativity remains stifled since any wrong-think results in punishment and banishment.

Patreon probably started its venture as one to foster a marketplace of creativity and ideas, yet it is becoming through what I view it’s actions are more akin to cold-war Eastern Europe. Patreon’s CEO in the video at the top claims that his management team does go to length to verify if its terms of service is violated and thus subject a user to sanctioning (though I disagree since it seems evident to me his actions are otherwise) they are missing the point. Simply having such a team is antithetical to free speech.  Thiers is essentially an ex parte Star Chamber that decides what is and what is not acceptable behavior or speech.  Other than the banking and legal compliance that I aforementioned, this is NOT their place to decide.  My bank does not dictate how I spend my money: who I give it to; which grocery stores I patronize; nor which books I buy or films I see. They frankly have other affairs to manage. They do not take away my savings because I talked with a Episcopalian Minister while in line at the Department of Licensing or the Cowboys who gave me a thumbs up because I had a customized car license plate they found humorous.

Yet, I do see some potential for private enterprise to bypass this type of censorship and gain quite a bit of money in the process–the niche market of crowd funding all the internets misfits and ordinary people.  But thanks to Patreon’s censorship and arrogance, they just might have provided the impetus and opportunity for such a venture.

Dr. Jordan Peterson took exception to Patreon’s behavior and stated that he is researching starting an alternative funding site to the Silicon Valley’s control and domination:

I hope that Patreon elects to make a full reversal of its need to engage in censorship but I have little faith they will. Their actions in this controversy certainly are not based upon good business acumen but rather seems more aligned with politics and personalities. But if they don’t, they can become irrelevant as the only customer base they can attract is an increasingly blander flavor of mediocrity representing only a sliver of the potential human thought expressed as the internet generally.  I trust that they will feel safe in that vision.

By Darren Smith

The views expressed in this posting are the author’s alone and not those of the blog, the host, or other weekend bloggers. As an open forum, weekend bloggers post independently without pre-approval or review. Content and any displays or art are solely their decision and responsibility.

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