What started as a relatively small protest has spread like wildfire across the country. Occupy Wall Street is a full-on movement—just ask the pundits who talk about it every day on TV. And as stories run every few hours, both slamming and applauding participants, the movement carries on—partly thanks to generous donations.
But who is funneling donations to protesters? The answer: WePay, a payment service startup in Palo Alto, California.
How does the company feel about facilitating the funding of a political protest? Does it polarize customers? Did they volunteer to participate? I called up co-founder Rich Aberman, to get some answers.
Q: How did you get involved with Occupy Wall Street?
A: A few weeks prior to Sept. 17, we spotted an account that gave us pause. One person had set it up and its only detail was to collect donations for a Sept. 17 event. Since it’s up to us to verify all accounts, we reached out to the individual to figure out what the account was to be used for.
The person said they were collecting money for a public protest on Wall Street and that the funds would be used to feed, house and clothe protesters.
Q: Are you worried about polarizing customers who don’t agree with the protest?
A: I think it is our responsibility to treat all customers equally, as long as people are not doing things illegal or unscrupulous. We are just a platform. I don’t want to get into the business of deciding what causes to support.
Most of our customers are simply concerned with achieving a single goal of payment online—for example, a fraternity collecting dues or the organizer of a high school reunion collecting money for an event. Very few of our users know that Occupy Wall Street protesters use WePay, and I think an even lower percentage care.
We’ve had some reaction from the public. Some people think it is great and others think it is not good for economic stability. We are excited to get feedback either way.
Q: How many WePay accounts are helping to fund Occupy Wall Street?
A: Right now we have 170 accounts dedicated to the movement.
Q: How do donors know which ones are legit?
A: We can’t guarantee that donations will go where they are expected to go. We are the piping and the platform, but donors need to do their own due diligence.
The people collecting donations can elect to be transparent with donors, but we don’t enforce that.
Q: How do you feel about supporting this movement?
A: I prefer not to answer. There is no win for me.
Q: How does WePay decide which accounts to activate and which ones to deny?
A: We have an automated system to verify each user and we also go through a manual process. We will not allow accounts that help fund anything discriminatory or anything that promotes violence. At the end of the day, judgment calls need to be made.
We do have a list of specific things we prohibit, including money for court mandated payments and legal services.
Q: What are some of the craziest things people have used WePay to fund?
A: I’d rather not talk about accounts that we’ve denied, but some accounts we’ve accepted have included a user who raised $60,000 for his mother’s breast cancer emergency surgery and another user who collected money because he knocked his teeth out in a skateboarding accident.
Q: Have you personally witnessed Occupy Wall Street?
A: I did stop by Occupy Walnut Creek [in Walnut Creek, California—just east of San Francisco] because it is near my house. It was much smaller than the New York protest. I did not participate, but it was great to see our customers engaged, using our product to solve real problems.