For over a month, truckers filled downtown Ottawa, the Canadian capital city, protesting the Canadian government’s vaccine mandates for truck drivers. In response, the government employed a heavy-handed, multi-pronged approach to halt this peaceful protest. Meanwhile in the United States, sympathizers have formed “The People’s Convoy” which arrived in Washington, D.C. on March 5 to protest vaccine mandates.
Freezing temperatures, forcible removal and police presence did not break the spirits of either of the convoy’s participants, but the Canadian government and a willing media staked out a new strategy: freezing financial and material support. Americans–whether or not they agree with the convoy–should be alarmed at the implications of public and private efforts to dox and harass donors who supported what some consider a controversial cause. Philanthropic freedom depends on the right to give to any causes an individual chooses and to do so privately. Not only are the philanthropic rights of Canadian donors at risk, but so are those of many Americans who have given even one dollar to the convoy.
As a reminder, the Freedom Convoy began with a GoFundMe page created in mid-January by an Alberta woman to organize the protest of vaccine mandates for truckers travelling across the U.S.-Canadian border. The fundraising campaign picked up steam and had collected about $10 million within two weeks before the company closed the campaign under pressure from the Canadian government.
A second funding campaign was set up on the Christian crowdfunding website, GiveSendGo. Two weeks later, the Canadian government successfully petitioned the courts to freeze access to the over $8 million collected through GiveSendGo’s Freedom Convoy campaign.
At about that time, GiveSendGo suffered a massive data breach by private hackers. The names and personal information of nearly 93,000 donors who contributed to this campaign–from CEOs to law enforcement–were leaked and published online. The New York Times published donor names and information as did The Washington Post under the blatant headline, “Which U.S. communities sent money to support the Canadian trucker protests?” They used published analyses such as breakdowns of donors by location to string together a narrative about the political persuasions of those supporting the convoy.
Eager journalists and social media users also used the leaked information to harass donors in an effort to embarrass, shame and even force them to retract their support. This harassment drew bipartisan congressional criticism, most notably from Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MI).
In response to the protest, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau invoked emergency orders (including the Economic Emergency Order) as a means to starve the convoy of cash and resources. The order instructed financial institutions to freeze the accounts and assets of protestors and required that crowdfunding platforms comply with terrorism financing and money-laundering laws. Then, in a stunning turnaround, Trudeau revoked use of the emergency orders.
The treatment of the donors to the Freedom Convoy provides cautionary lessons about the vulnerability of donor privacy even in free societies.
Those who hacked and doxxed donors sought retribution against political opponents. In a free society, individuals can give to any causes they choose and should be shielded from retribution by public and private actors. Doxxing political adversaries should not be celebrated or encouraged; today it is donors to the Freedom Convoy, but the next it could be donations to Girl Scouts or Live Action. Organizations and crowdfunding companies who have not checked on their data protection might want to make data privacy a top priority.
Hackers found willing allies in media outlets to carry out this doxxing campaign. We cannot count on legacy news to respect the privacy of donors or the damage that can follow when their names, employers and addresses are publicized.
Most disturbingly, even democratic governments may violate the constitutional rights of its citizens when they run counter to government objectives. Freezing assets and bank accounts under laws meant to fight terrorism and money laundering placed Canadian and American donors in the same company as gangs, mobs and terrorists. Trudeau employed emergency powers to punish protestors and their supporters and it sent a chilling signal to convoy sympathizers of what could happen to them if they financially supported causes out of line with the government.
Donor privacy is critical to philanthropy for many reasons including the fear of harassment. In the U.S., state legislatures are actively attempting to force greater donor disclosure with no regard for the repercussions that may follow. As The Wall Street Journal editorial board noted:
The mandatory disclosure of donors to nonprofits, such as in the legislation passed in California and overturned in July by the Supreme Court, punishes unpopular causes and chills speech protected by the First Amendment. The effect is to entrench the media consensus and the heckler’s veto, which these days too often work in tandem.
The Freedom Convoy illustrates just this concern.