The raging debate over policing what people say in the U.S. has ramped up in recent days, with Elon Musk promising to return free speech to Twitter upon completion of his pending takeover and the Biden administration vowing to crack down on whatever the government deems to be "disinformation."
Musk says he is "against censorship that goes far beyond the law," but that is not the norm for Big Tech giants, according to a new study, which comes at a time when organizations and individuals are concerned about losing critical online tools over saying the "wrong" thing in the view of a service provider.
The Napa Legal Institute, an organization that educates and protects faith-based nonprofits, conducted a review of more than 50 user agreements from major platforms offering core services such as social media, email hosting and payment processing, and found that well over half of Big Tech platforms require customers to sign agreements that pose risks to religious freedom and free speech.
The analysis, titled "The Big Tech Scorecard" and reviewed by FOX Business, rated the companies' user agreements according to how risky they are for users. It found that 65% of the firms had subjective or arbitrary standards for policing speech, with agreements that also allowed for the companies to suspend or terminate services without any warning or opportunity for a user to remedy the issue. In signing such agreements, Napa Legal warns users should "exercise extreme caution."
Napa Legal's study slapped warning labels on dozens of major tech firms' user agreements for services, including those of Microsoft Exchange Online, Google Drive, Dropbox, Amazon Pay and Facebook.
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Joshua Holdenried, Napa Legal vice president and executive director, urges consumers to actually read the user agreements on tech platforms rather than just clicking through them because there can be real consequences for violations.
"It's all out there in plain sight," Holdenried told FOX Business. "You can pull up the terms and agreements with any of these Big Tech platforms – people have no idea what they're clicking ‘I agree’ to."
One of the most alarming user agreements, in his view, is PayPal's.
PayPal's user agreement clearly states that the payment processing company has the right to charge users up to $2,500 per violation, "which may be debited directly from your PayPal account."
Holdenried says the risk is that an organization using PayPal might hold a rally "that PayPal decides is in violation … and they'll just subtract that money from your account. It's just as easy as that."
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In response to the criticism of their user agreement, a PayPal spokesperson told FOX Business, "PayPal has a long-standing Acceptable Use Policy and our team of dedicated professionals handle each case individually with a thoughtful, consistent and objective approach in how we apply our policy."
"Achieving the balance between protecting the ideals of tolerance, diversity and respect for people of all backgrounds and upholding the values of free expression and open dialogue can be difficult, but we do our best to achieve it," the spokesperson added.
Napa Legal advises faith-based organizations to take the time to understand user agreements and make informed decisions when deciding on a vendor, and encourages tech companies to develop user agreements that honor free speech.
Holdenried also has some advice for Musk and the first thing the self-proclaimed free speech absolutist should do if and when he takes over Twitter.
"Change the user agreement," Holdenried said. "Change it to make sure it protects language and expression that is within constitutional and legal limits that everyone can agree to and that is objective and standard."