Thursday, March 15, 2012

PayPal Backs Off Censoring Erotica

At last, some good news in publishing this week: PayPal has backed off its pressure on Smashwords over erotica. Previously they had threatened to pull functionality from Smashwords if they continued to sell certain kinds of erotica, or refuse to process payments related to those works. According to Smahwords-boss Mark Coker on their blog, PayPal will not segregate against any form of legal fiction.
Even if your way is with a St. Bernard.

Coker bravely and wisely aired this topic on the net for weeks. The official Smashwords blog became a chronicle of every development in his struggle with PayPal, letting people know in detail the censorship that was at risk and changes of people’s favor. Generous to his clientele, Coker credits activists and authors who spread the issue’s prominence with convincing PayPal to back down. I suspect there’s more to it, though, and would pretty happily buy a book on how negotiations went up to this settlement. We can’t undervalue the tactics and appeals that work in convincing independent bodies about issues like censorship.

This is an important precedent, for if Coker really negotiated with the biggest electronic-era payment service to not press moral issues like this, then operators of smaller services will be less likely to challenge publishers, since they have less a chance of winning, and additional chances of simply forking business over to a bigger competitor.

One still marks the grim flipside: that PayPal’s operators ought to have the right to choose what transactions they facilitate. By “winning” and coercing them to continue services, Smashwords has won for the rights of authors, but hopefully not discouraged the rights of business owners. I’m inclined to overlook this because PayPal’s operators were convinced of their own will – though for anything more specific, again, we might need a journalist to write us a book.
Dana Carvey does not necessarily endorse "Daddy" incest-porn.
Paul Biba and other bloggers complained of our cultural double-standard, some mistakenly thinking it merely Puritanical. It’s not. It doesn't take Church Lady to be grossed out by rape-porn, and anthropology and ethnology have revealed that hunter-gatherers killed in public and rutted in private. The different handling of sexuality and violence is as old as society. Of course it keeps showing up, especially when we broach fringe issues, which encompassed all of PayPal’s targets.

To some degree this was about double-standards, but in a vital way it wasn’t: liberty of fiction is an All-or-Nothing game. Either authors are allowed to write fiction about anything, or they’re not. Either the right exists or it doesn’t. It’s that terrifyingly simple. Either you can write incestual smut, or you don’t actually have freedom of expression – just temporary allowances based on the tastes of others.

There’s never been a year in my adult life when I haven’t thrown a book across the room, but I’d never ban their publication. Seeing the markets support that notion is heartening. Sometimes, especially with recent motions of the Big Six, Department of Justice, and Amazon, you can forget the markets ever move in positive directions.


  1. I am agreeing completely with the thrust of this post, but keep getting sidetracked. What sort of book do you hurl across the room and what is its fate after that?

    1. Typically an hour later I go over, dust it off and try reading through it again. Many kinds of books have taken such flight. A particular Sudoku holds the record for most throwings.

  2. You're right - it is all or nothing, because who would define the line every time?

    So, I just added another downfall to owning a book on Kindle vs. Paperback, which is 'the inability to throw a book across the room.' ; )

  3. I still don't buy this idea that a payment service company can refuse to handle payments for goods or services it disapproves of *after it has agreed to be a payment service provider for a company* -- unless, as the new agreement stipulates, the good or service is illegal to begin with.

    This isn't like a rare books shop owner refusing to sell a teenager a Harlan Ellison first edition because he believes the kids won't appreciate it, or even like a pharmacist refusing to sell condoms to a twelve-year-old. PayPal is a *payment service*. They facilitate transactions between sellers and buyers. Within those transactions they don't buy or sell anything themselves.

    It would be like a bank refusing to let you use your ATM card if you're using a direct debit machine within a known red light district. Never mind that your car broke down and you're trying to pay the tow truck -- they don't approve of where you're spending money, so no moolah for you.

    It just doesn't work for me. I can see PayPal having the right to not deal with a business or individual. I can see PayPal having the right to refuse to aid illegal activities. But I cannot see PayPal or any other business having the right to tell a business it deals with what goods and services they can offer *when PayPal is only a payment transaction provider in the exchange of payment for said goods and services*.

    Otherwise, it's like the company that provides the ink for paper currency telling the government people can no longer pay cash at strip clubs because the owner of the ink company doesn't approve of such places.

    1. I don't quite understand what you mean by "It just doesn't work for me." It's objectionable behavior, but it's a company that clearly had contractual liberty to make these decisions. If you compare it to the behaviors of banks, there are banks that don't process e-payments to many destinations or retailers, though in recent years they've hustled to fix that because it infringes upon business. I used to have an account with one. I don't anymore because I found it inconvenient, but they had the right to lag - which likely means PayPal had the right to refuse. It's in our best interest to get them to not refuse.

      Putting it the way you did made me wonder about refusing to fulfill payment for certain services. If I ran a bank, would I go out of my way to block the purchase of blood diamonds or slaves? Not that the latter are as transparently sold, though they still are even in this country.


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