Crowdfunding platforms GoFundMe and GiveSendGo defended their handling of the so-called “Freedom Convoy” blockade fundraising campaigns during a meeting that put the due diligence done by those platforms and their payment partners under scrutiny by Canadian lawmakers.
The appearances of the platform leaders, alongside leaders from their payment processors PayPal and Stripe, came nearly five weeks after the convoy first arrived in the nation’s capital on Jan. 28.
The convoy’s ensuing encampment lasted until a Feb. 19 police operation cleared them out, following weeks of blaring truck horns that at times defied court injunctions, and hundreds of complaints by residents of alleged hate, harassment, intimidation and violence by the participants.
“This group of fundraisers and this fundraiser as whole was, I think we can all agree, an unprecedented event,” said Juan Benitez, president of GoFundMe.
“We’re proud of how we handled this campaign,” added Kim Wilford, general counsel for the company.
The fundraiser for the convoy originally caught the company’s attention because of the pace of the funds it was raising, Wilford said, adding that GoFundMe performed “know your customer” screenings on Tamara Lich — one of the organizers — that did not raise any red flags.
Lich launched the GoFundMe campaign on Jan. 14.
Wilford also said GoFundMe did not know about the memorandum of understanding posted on a website belonging to Canada Unity, one of the groups involved in organizing the convoy.
That memorandum of understanding falsely asserted the elected government could be replaced by a committee with the Senate and Governor General that would override all levels of Canadian government in order to stop the use of vaccine passports, waive fines linked to COVID-19 and reinstate employees who were fired for breaking COVID-19 rules.
Canada Unity later pulled the memorandum, claiming it was never the intention of the convoy to overthrow the democratically-elected Canadian government.
“GoFundMe was not aware of this memorandum of understanding,” said Wilford.
“In our original diligence, the organizer didn’t reveal that there were any issues.”
An archived version of the Canada Unity site shows the memorandum was online as of Jan. 11., but the involvement of Canada Unity in the convoy didn’t become clear publicly until media reports throughout the week of Jan. 20, leading up to the arrival in Ottawa.
The handling of the convoy by all levels of government and, in particular, by police has faced intense criticism from local residents.
Police repeatedly chose not to act, first by allowing the convoy and the big rigs taking part to encamp along downtown streets, then choosing for weeks not to enforce local noise bylaws or traffic rules against participants blasting truck horns throughout the days and nights while parked on the streets.
Reuters reported on Thursday that police underestimated the convoy’s intentions, and assumed they would leave the city within a few days, according to police sources cited in that report.
Wilford said GoFundMe reached out to Ottawa police on Jan. 31 amid growing reports of what Benitez described as a shift from the original “peaceful” nature of the demonstration.
“There was this change that occurred, a very poignant change,” Benitez said, adding that it was the conversations among GoFundMe staff with Ottawa police and Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson’s office that led the company to determine on Feb. 4 that the convoy violated the terms of service.
GiveSendGo pressed over Proud Boys, KKK
After GoFundMe shut down the convoy campaign, it moved to another crowdfunding platform, GiveSendGo, which bills itself as a “Christian fundraising site.”
The sibling owners of that platform appeared before the public safety committee following GoFundMe, offering testimony that frequently grew heated as one of the founders repeatedly raised her voice and talked over MPs, at one point accusing the committee of “defending GoFundMe.”
Both panels featuring the platforms lasted for roughly one hour each.
Jacob Wells, one of the co-founders, said the platform was not aware of the memorandum by Canada Unity which had stated a desire to bypass democratically elected government.
“In our course of research around the campaigns, that was not something we were aware of. Obviously there’s always fringe elements to any organization and the media I believe in general just tries to polarize the fringe things because it’s great for the media,” Wells said.
He was later asked whether he was aware of local noise bylaws being broken by participants blaring their horns, or traffic laws being broken by convoy vehicles blockading city streets.
“I don’t necessarily know that those things happened,” Wells said, before being interrupted by one MP on the committee who asked if he had turned on the television during the convoy.
“What happened in Ottawa from what I was getting reports of on the ground was that truckers did move into the city and that lanes of traffic were open and available for emergency vehicles and other vehicles to travel through,” he said.
Wells characterized the convoy as “a largely peaceful protest with an attempt to marginalize it by a fringe percentage of the group.”
But it was during an exchange with Liberal MP Pam Damoff that sparks flew, as Damoff pressed Wells about why their platform has allowed funds to be raised for the Proud Boys, which have been a listed terrorist entity in Canada since 2019, as well as groups that espoused hatred.
“If we started mandating litmus tests for how good people ought to be in order to use public services, we would be in a very, very difficult situation very quickly,” said Wells.
“Would you allow a fundraiser for the Ku Klux Klan?” Damoff asked, referring to the white supremacist group.
“If the fundraising activity was legal and it was legally authorized to have happen, we would allow people to fundraise for things that are legal,” Wells said in response.
Damoff asked again whether the platform would allow a fundraiser for the Ku Klux Klan.
“If individuals or organizations that are legally authorized to receive payments and go through the KYC checks and the AML checks that everyone is required to and have been done through our platform, and if they pass all of those measures and what they’re fundraising for is legal, then yes we will allow them to fundraise,” said Wells.
KYC is a reference for “know your customer” screening required by financial institutions to verify identifies of customers, while AML refers to anti-money laundering screening.
“I’m sorry but all this mumbo-jumbo about legal — do you not have anti-hate provisions in your terms of service?” Damoff said to Wells.
“You can read our terms of service. They’re very clear, they’re right there on our website. We have plenty of terms in there that guide how we operate as a business, as an organization,” Wells said.
“We believe, completely to the core of our being, that the danger of the suppression of speech is much more dangerous than the speech itself and this has been tested through history.”
The Ku Klux Klan is a white supremacist hate group with roots in the American Deep South.