Founded in 2010, GoFundMe, a crowdfunding website that allows everyday people to create donations pages for personal causes, now boasts itself to be “The World’s #1 Personal Funding Websites.” GoFundMe’s website states that the website has raised over $480 million dollars, with a daily payment volume of over $1million. As examples of causes people have chosen to use their company to fund, GoFundMe lists medical expenses, educational costs, volunteer programs and even animals and pets, stating that “the possibilities are endless.” However, recent GoFundMe controversies show that this is not necessarily the case, and that GoFundMe can, sometimes arbitrarily, choose which causes are permissible.
As reported by various online news outlets and blogs such as Think Progress, in early September GoFundMe removed the funding campaign of an Illinois woman named Bailey who, according to her GoFundMe site, was raising money for an abortion for a “rough, unplanned, and unexpected pregnancy.”
In an email sent to Bailey by the company and attained by The Daily Dot, a Customer Happiness representative let’s Bailey know that GoFundMe has concluded that her campaign was not appropriate for their site. The email states, “GoFundMe reviews campaigns that have received a high number of complaints on a case-by-case basis. In this particular case your campaign contains subject matter that GoFundMe would rather not be associated with.” A few days later GoFundMe updated its official Content Guidelines to prohibit many campaigns, including those regarding abortion or “content associated or relating to it,” according to several sites including one in the International Business Times entitled “GoFundMe’s New Guidelines For Acceptable Content Are Confusing and Inconsistent” by Zoe Mintz. As expected, GoFundMe received significant backlash, with one Facebook user even calling the site misogynistic and racist. Despite the language used in the new guidelines, many pro-life or anti-abortion campaigns remained on the crowdsourcing site. Moreover, according to Mintz’s IBT article, several other campaigns exist on the website related to other controversial topics such as gun rights, marijuana legalization and euthanasia, some of which directly violate GoFundMe’s content prohibition guidelines.
The perseverance of various other controversial campaigns speaks to the inability of GoFundMe, and the majority of public, user-dominated websites, to create and enforce universal standards of censorship. As Ethan Mollick, management professor at UPenn’s Wharton School of Business notes “there is an ongoing battle among various crowdfunding sites about how much to curate and how much not to. There is probably some combination of curation or censoring that is optimal, and nobody knows quite what that is,” (quoted by Jillian Berman in her Huffington Post article on the controversy). Although GoFundMe later modified its content guidelines once again in an attempt to clarify (stating it now prohibits “directly funding an abortion (animal or human)”) their ability to actually universally enforce its 35 separate categories of prohibited content across over 1 million campaigns seems limited.
In addition, GoFundMe is a private company and as such, and as stated in their Content Guidelines, they reserve the right to approve or shut down any campaign they choose, even if it does not directly violate its regulations. Conversely, the company can also refuse to shut down any campaign it chooses, raising questions surrounding what information GoFundMe uses “on a case-by-case basis” to decide which campaigns it will tolerate and for what reasons. One oft cited example is the fact that despite a barrage of criticism calling for the termination of GoFundMe campaigns in support of Darren Wilson, the Missouri police officer who shot and killed unarmed teenager Michael Brown, GoFundMe refused to shut down the campaign, telling Business Insider that the campaign is not in violation of the company’s terms of service. Many of the donors’ comments, however, sampled below, did violate the terms of service by spewing overtly racist and hateful sentiments, and were subsequently removed.
The campaigns stayed active however, raising approximately $400,000 in funds. GoFundMe so vehemently refused to take down the campaigns that it has threatened to sue one of the civil rights organizations protesting the site, Color of Change. According to an article by Christopher Zara in the International Business Times, the non-profit organization has been in negotiations with GoFundMe to change its content policy, but as agreements could not be made, Color of Change is allegedly moving forward with its plan to place a billboard denouncing the company, similar to the one pictured below, in GoFundMe’s headquarter city of San Diego.
Although, as GoFundMe sated, the Darren Wilson campaign does not violate its terms and conditions, it received numerous complaints about it, a reason it cited in its email to Bailey as to why her campaign came under review. At the time, Bailey’s campaign did not violate any terms and conditions of GoFundMe, and still it was taken down because it contained content that “GoFundMe would rather not be associated with.” Thus this discrepancy raises questions of why GoFundMe would tolerate some campaigns over others. Many of the articles cited above note that GoFundMe retains 5% of each donation, meaning that in the case of the campaigns to support Darren Wilson, GoFundMe was slated to rack in 20K. What role does this monetary benefit play in which moral codes GoFundMe enforces and which ones it doesn’t? Moreover, as stated above, GoFundMe is a private company, run by real people, with their own personal beliefs and biases. In this new digital age where almost anything is publicly acceptable, it seems we sometimes forget that although websites may be for public use, they are still privately owned, and the stipulations they place on their production often reflect that.