Founded around the turn of the last century, Soulseek is a small dinosaur in the file-sharing world.
Created by former Napster programmer Nir Arbel, the application swiftly turned into a tight community of music fans, which is still active today.
Over the years Soulseek operators Nir and Roz Arbel have seen other file-sharing tools come and go, but all this time they remained dedicated to their principles. Despite its name, Soulseek had long found its purpose.
While it kept a relatively low profile, Soulseek is not immune to the “stigma” that comes with being a file-sharing tool. In 2015, PayPal cut off its ability to collect donations, claiming that sharing tools required pre-approval, even though that policy didn’t exist when it signed up.
Soulseek is not a profit-oriented platform but donations are welcomed. Without PayPal, this became a challenge, but luckily for the developers, the Electonic Frontier Foundation (EFF) was able to intervene.
February 2016 everything returned to normal when the PayPal account was restored, for a while at least. Earlier his year, PayPal apparently changed its mind and booted the application once again.
Soulseek operator Roz Arbel was told that the application violated the payment service’s acceptable use policy and that ‘pre-approval’ was required for ‘file-sharing’ tools. It was pretty much the same recycled argument from years before.
Faced with this deja-vu, Soulseek turned to EFF for help once again, but this time PayPal wouldn’t budge.
“PayPal made it clear that they’re not willing to offer Soulseek financial services any longer. The company did give the Arbels access to their funds and tax documentation, after a request from EFF,” the digital rights group writes.
EFF asked whether PayPal’s latest ban was linked to a concrete copyright complaint, but the payment processor didn’t provide any further information. It just confirmed that Soulseek was banned, apparently for good.
While some cases may be clearer than others, EFF sees the Soulseek example as a clear illustration of financial censorship.
“What the Arbels are experiencing is a form of financial censorship that has, unfortunately, become increasingly widespread. Following the law isn’t enough—PayPal apparently expects a small message board service with a file-sharing function to do far more than the law requires.”
“PayPal explained to us that they will cut off sites that ‘allow for the transfer or download of copyrighted material.’ Taken literally, that’s a staggeringly broad claim,” EFF writes.
EFF points out that pretty much all content on the Internet is automatically copyrighted. Still, there are thousands of online services that allow people to share it. Downloading copyrighted material is also possible on Dropbox and Google Drive, for example.
In PayPal’s policy, the company suggests that merchants must have a procedure to both “monitor” the files on their service and “remove or otherwise prevent access” to copyright-infringing work. Perhaps that’s where Soulseek goes wrong, but that wouldn’t be fair according to EFF.
“If payment processors were to cut off Internet services simply because they could be used for copyright infringement, a huge swath of the web would lose the ability to accept payments,” EFF writes.
“As a matter of policy, Soulseek respects its users’ privacy by not surveilling their conversations or file exchanges. Violating users’ privacy shouldn’t be the price of entry for using a payment processor.”
It’s clear that Soulseek and PayPal have parted ways. While EFF may not be able to change that, it encourages PayPal and other Internet companies to be more transparent about when and how often they terminate accounts due to complaints from governments or copyright holders.