In Depth

Controversial crowdfunding: where to draw the line?

Online fundraising for an abortion caused crowdfunding website GoFundMe to step in

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Crowdfunding has become an increasingly popular way to raise money for everything from potato salad to ingenious gadgets. However, two recent campaigns – both launched on the popular crowdfunding site GoFundMe – have caused widespread debate over the ethics of raising money in this way.

Bailey's abortion plea

Last month, a 23-year-old American woman called Bailey set up a campaign to raise money for her abortion. According to her campaign, Bailey was "unemployed, completely broke, in debt, and in no position to hold down a job due to severe symptoms of a rough, unplanned and unexpected pregnancy."

Donations began to pour in, but so did the negative comments, particularly from conservative Christian groups and pro-life campaigners.  "I’ve had a few people threaten to find out where I live [so they can] come hurt me", she told Vice news. Shortly after the interview was published, GoFundMe took down her fundraising page, saying that they had received a high number of complaints about its content. "In this particular case, your campaign contains subject matter that GoFundMe would rather not be associated with," the company told her.

GoFundMe says it reserves the right to end any fundraiser on their site, for any reason and that it is not legally obliged to return any money raised. Abortion, despite being legal in most states in the US, has now been added to the company's list of banned fundraising subjects, along with gambling and 'sorcery'.

Commentators argued that it was not up to the company to decide what people could fundraise for. "The prospect may sound distasteful, but it is not unreasonable," the Economist says. "Abortions are costly and a woman should have the right to raise money for a legal operation from others who support her right to have one."

An appeal for Officer Darren Wilson

There have been growing calls for a fundraising campaign for US police officer Darren Wilson to be removed. Wilson shot unarmed teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson last month, leading to widespread protests. The campaign raised over $388,000 for him but has been recently taken down. It is unclear whether or not GoFundMe was involved.

Critics argued that the fundraiser went against the site’s guidelines by promoting "hate, violence, racial intolerance, and/or the financial exploitation of a crime." The company responded by saying it was not its job to censor material. "Much like Facebook and Twitter, GoFundMe is an open technology platform that allows for the exchange of ideas and opinions within the bounds of our terms of service," a spokesperson told the International Business Times.

Determining when to step in and moderate the campaigns is "a very difficult decision for these platforms," Ethan Mollick, a management professor at the University of Pennsylvania told the Huffington Post.

Fundraising sites like GoFundMe say they impose some regulations in order to improve the user's experience "but judging by the list of banned content, GoFundMe doesn't necessarily want a positive experience for all visitors," writes the Washington Post's Caitlin Dewey. It wants a positive experience for visitors who align with a specific social outlook — a social outlook, incidentally, that has very little to do with universal social standards".

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