March 1, 2012

Paypal does not want you to read erotica


The big online platforms seem to have sex on their minds just as much as the current Republican field.  Paypal is the latest internet giant to begin censoring books that it considers to be sexually explicit or obscene.  (See MobyLives’ earlier article on Apple’s ebook censorship here.)

Rainey Reitman reports on the Electronic Frontier Foundation‘s blog, Deep Links, that Indie publisher Smashwords has been issued with an ultimatum by Paypal: remove erotic content or risk Paypal denying service.  And Smashwords is not the only online publisher that’s been notified.

A letter from Smashwords’ founder Mark Coker advises his authors that,

“Today we are modifying our Terms of Service to clarify our policies regarding erotic fiction that contains bestiality, rape and incest. If you write in any of these categories, please carefully read the instructions below and remove such content from Smashwords.

… PayPal is requiring Smashwords to immediately begin removing the above-mentioned categories of books. Please review your title(s) and proactively remove and archive such works if you are affected.”

He goes on to describe the particular categories affected, warning that

“…[a]nything that threatens Smashwords directly threatens our ability to serve the greater interests of all Smashwords authors, publishers, retailers and customers who rely upon us as the world’s leading distributor of indie ebooks. The business considerations compel me to not fall on the sword for incest. I realize this is an imperfect decision. The slippery slope is dangerous, but I believe this imperfect decision is in the best interest of the community we serve.”

Coker is clearly reluctant to comply with Paypal, but sees little room for maneuver.  He details how Paypal is written into the Smashwords digital platform, and suggests that to remove it would be to disable the entire service.  Paypal has also established itself as a trusted online payment method and to ask customers to pay in another way might be discouraging and diminish the returns Smashwords can offer.  In essence, Paypal has made itself almost indispensible to the small web based retailer and can now go about enforcing a vague moral code.

The idea of online platforms and corporations enforcing their own idea of appropriate reading material is truly discomforting.  According to Reitman,

“[a]s Wendy Kaminer wrote in a foreword to Nadine Strossen’s Defending Pornography: “Speech shouldn’t have to justify itself as nice, socially constructive, or inoffensive in order to be protected. Civil liberty is shaped, in part, by the belief that free expression has normative or inherent value, which means that you have a right to speak regardless of the merits of what you say.”

When I signed up to Paypal, I didn’t realize I was choosing a Paypal way of life, and I’m guessing, neither did Smashwords.  I have always thought of it as a bank, with no particular opinion of the inane things I purchase while online shopping. Little did I know they were worried I might be buying erotica.  What’s next?  Does Paypal have any further opinions on literature they might like to enforce?

Ariel Bogle is a former publicist at Melville House.