PayPal Kills Canadian Paper's Submission To Media Awards Because Article Had Word 'Syrian' In The Title
from the EXPORTING-OUR-STUPIDITY dept
PayPal is ubiquitous. And that's unfortunate. Over the years, the payment platform has earned a reputation for acting in a way that can charitably be described as "hellishly inconsistent." For little to no reason, users have found their accounts shut down or suspended. And, thanks to US laws meant to prevent the PayPal-ing of material support to foreign terrorists, PayPal has been suspending accounts for innocuous payments containing certain trigger words in the descriptions.
The latest victim of PayPal's inscrutable policies and unapproachable customer service is a small Canadian newspaper. As the CBC reports, the small paper's attempt to enter a few of its stories for consideration for national newspaper awards resulted in the bricking of both the sender's and the receiver's accounts.
A community newspaper's payment to enter a feel-good story about a family of Syrian refugees in an awards competition prompted PayPal to freeze the account of a national media organization after flagging the suspicious transaction, The Canadian Press has learned.
The weekly Flin Flon Reminder entered the article — titled "Syrian family adapts to new life" — last month as part of its submissions to the annual Canadian Community Newspaper Awards. The feature story from July 2016 outlines the challenges and triumphs as the family settled in the Manitoban town of 5,100 and the community's willingness to make them feel welcome.
The word "Syrian" set off PayPal's auto-monitor, which blocked the Flin Flon Reminder's $240 in entry fees. (To be considered for the awards, submitters must pay $60 per article submitted -- and it would appear Flin Flon submitted four of them.)
It would be one thing if the payment was flagged and then reviewed. But nothing in the story suggests PayPal took a second look at this until a larger media outfit -- the CBC -- started asking questions.
PayPal didn't limit itself to killing the sender's account. It suspended the receiver's account as well.
This week, Durnin called News Media Canada — formerly Newspaper Canada — to find out what had happened. They realized PayPal had frozen the News Media Canada account, said Nicole Bunt, who processes the awards entries.
PayPal supposedly reviews flagged payments within 72 hours. No one involved heard anything from PayPal until after the CBC's inquiries. The belated response from PayPal: "Um... US law mumble mumble mumble."
"You may be buying or selling goods or services that are regulated or prohibited by the U.S. government," PayPal said in an email to News Media Canada.
Oh, really? This is some spectacular review work by PayPal, considering both the sender and the receiver are located entirely in Canada. While US law may govern US transactions processed by the company, they should have little to no effect on completely extraterritorial transactions.
And the sole reason for PayPal's dual account nuking? The word "Syrian" being in the submission to the newspaper awards.
The note also requested a "complete and detailed explanation of the transaction" and the purpose of the payment, which identified with the story's headline.
That's the problem with keyword flagging. All it's ever going to do is produce false positives and inconvenience hundreds of non-terrorists. The algorithms deployed by PayPal are looking for terms no terrorist is going to use when transferring funds to allies. It works on the stupidest of assumptions: that memo lines are going to filled with suspicious keywords when actual nefarious transactions are taking place.
If you're going to build a US law-compliant service that relies on tragically flawed logic, the least you can do is actually review flagged transactions in a timely manner and provide actual people customers can talk to, to sort out these issues.
Instead, PayPal appears to have left this payment-vetting process to the machines and made it all but impossible to speak to someone who might be able to derive something from context. And it makes it worse by subjecting other countries to US law, whether or not the flagged transaction violates laws in the country where the funds are changing hands.
Then there's this kicker at the end of the CBC article.
PayPal did not immediately explain its process.