Wednesday 29 February 2012

PayPal Censorship

Image courtesy of IsaacMao

Some seriously disturbing news emerging at the moment:
Paypal has decided to abuse its considerable position by imposing their moral beliefs on the self-publishing industry, forcing Smashwords, Bookstrand and other sites to remove certain categories of erotica from their websites.

In an update, Smashwords recently explained:

I had another call with PayPal this morning, and as a result of that conversation I extended the which authors, publishers and agents should voluntarily remove content that no longer fits the PayPal guidelines.

The mortifying part is the amount of hostility authors seem to be levelling at Smashwords for what they claim to be 'giving in to' PayPal's unreasonable demands (which I'll get to in just a minute...) 

As Smashwords explain:

It's not so simple to just unplug PayPal. Their policy originates with the banks and credit card companies that power them, and if we want to continue accepting credit cards either with PayPal or any other payment provider, we need to understand from where this originates.

To illustrate, this isn't the first time PayPal has displayed a paternalistically patronising attitude towards what its users can and can't spend their money on. In December 2010: PayPal cuts Wikileaks access for donations

You might understand this had they been threatened by governments over something like 'supporting terrorist organisations' or other extremely loose and ambiguous legislation ending in unthinkable consequences, disappearances, and jail terms. Whether you agree with such legislation or not, you could at least sympathise with PayPal for being a victim of someone else's gagging order.

But, no. They very clearly state the reason as being: "a violation of the PayPal Acceptable Use Policy."

A policy which they, themselves, have sat down, discussed, and come up with.

That's the bit people need to shout about. Global economy, free market, competition - there isn't any in this case. It's PayPal or nawt. If we want to change the system, we need to campaign for a new one - a more ethical alternative in relation to freedom of expression.

If there is an alternative to PayPal, I'm now interested in finding it. My business relies on PayPal. So, like Smashwords, I currently need them. What I will do alongside that is continue to blog and shout, tweet, and Facebook my disagreement. After all, whilst you're still a customer you might get heard. Once you walk away, where's the incentive for them to listen? 

Unless everybody walks away. If we're prepared to do it en masse, I'm in. 

So, what are PayPal censoring and how?

Well, from what I've managed to garner (open to corrections here) - they're preventing users from purchasing certain types of literature from indie publishers, and they're threatening to cut services to businesses who fail to comply.

We're talking hardcore censorship here. Tantamount to financial blackmail.

The worst part is that PayPal don't even seem to be able to define exactly what it is that they wish to ban. Again, Smashword explain:

My dialogue is continuing with them as I seek to achieve a less onerous, more sensible result. Today, they hinted at a willingness to consider a more relaxed definition of prohibited content as..."books for which rape, bestiality and incest are the major theme.  If rape, bestiality and incest are incidental plot points, then that content might be allowable."  This is a significant clarification in my ongoing attempt to delineate the gray areas and push back the onerous, unfair and restrictive definitions as they now stand.  It's an opening, but not the final word from PayPal.

Might be allowable? I'm sorry, but really - f--k off PayPal. Oh look, I just censored myself.

Under that definition, my latest novel might be banned on two counts, as an 'incidental plot point.' My collection of short stories is a definite no-no.

What'll this mean?

Well, if I self-published a book on Smashwords that got pulled because it contravened PayPal's moral judgement, what would I do?

What any sensible author would do. I'd go and self-publish it on Amazon. No skin off my nose, but a huge punch in the gut for indie publishers like Smashwords, who end up being caught between a rock and a hard place: the ire of their authors for not making a stand, and the financial intimidation of a morally corrupt transaction company.

PayPal's name becomes muck, Smashwords go bankrupt, and the books are happily published elsewhere.

What on earth does this achieve, exactly?


  1. Received via e-mail from Smashwords 3rd March 2012.


    In case you haven't heard, about two weeks ago, PayPal contacted Smashwords and gave us a surprise ultimatum: Remove all titles containing bestiality, rape or incest, otherwise they threatened to deactivate our PayPal account. We engaged them in discussions and on Monday they gave us a temporary reprieve as we continue to work in good faith to find a suitable solution.

    PayPal tells us that their crackdown is necessary so that they can remain in compliance with the requirements of the banks and credit card associations (likely Visa, MasterCard, Discover, American Express, though they didn't mention them by name).

    Last Friday, I sent the following email to our erotica authors and publishers: Then on Monday, I issued an update, and announced we would delay enforcement of PayPal's guidelines so we and PayPal could continue our discussions:


    PayPal is asking us to censor legal fiction. Regardless of how one views topics of rape, bestiality and incest, these topics are pervasive in mainstream fiction. We believe this crackdown is really targeting erotica writers. This is unfair, and it marks a slippery slope. We don't want credit card companies or financial institutions telling our authors what they can write and what readers can read. Fiction is fantasy. It's not real. It's legal.


    There's no easy solution. Legally, PayPal and the credit card companies probably have the right to decide how their services are used. Unfortunately, since they're the moneyrunners, they control the oxygen that feeds digital commerce.

    Many Smashwords authors have suggested we find a different payment processor. That's not a good long term solution, because if credit card companies are behind this, they'll eventually force crackdowns elsewhere. PayPal works well for us. In addition to running all credit card processing at the store, PayPal is how we pay all our authors outside the U.S. My conversations with PayPal are ongoing and have been productive, yet I have no illusion that the road ahead will be simple, or that the outcome will be favorable.



    Independent advocacy groups are considering taking on the PayPal censorship case. I'm supporting the development of this loose-knit coalition of like-minded groups who believe that censorship of legal fiction should not be allowed. We will grow the coalition. Each group will have its own voice and tactics I'm working with them because we share a common cause to protect books from censorship. Earlier today I had conversations with the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), The American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression (ABFFE) and the National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC). I briefed them on the Smashwords/PayPal situation, explained the adverse affect this crackdown will have on some of our authors and customers, and shared my intention to continue working with PayPal in a positive manner to move the discussion forward.

    The EFF blogged about the issue a few days ago:
    Today, ABFFE and NCAC issued a press release:

    I will not be on the streets with torch in hand calling for PayPal's head, but I will encourage interested parties to get involved and speak their piece. This is where you come in...



    Although erotica authors are being targeted, this is an issue that should concern all indie authors. It affects indies disproportionately because indies are the ones pushing the boundaries of fiction. Indies are the ones out there publishing without the (fading) protective patina of a "traditional publisher" to lend them legitimacy. We indies only have each other.

    Several Smashwords authors have contacted me to stress that this censorship affects women disproportionately. Women write a lot of the erotica, and they're also the primary consumers of erotica. They're also the primary consumers of mainstream romance, which could also come under threat if PayPal and the credit card companies were to overly enforce their too-broad and too-nebulous obsenity clauses (I think this is unlikely, but at the same time, why would dubious consent be okay in mainstream romance but not okay in erotica? If your write paranormal, can your were-creatures not get it on with one another, or is that bestiality? The insanity needs to stop here. These are not questions an author, publisher or distributor
    of legal fiction should have to answer.).

    All writers and their readers should stand up and voice their opposition to financial services companies censoring books. Authors should have the freedom to publish legal fiction, and readers should have the freedom to read what they want.

    These corporations need to hear from you. Pick up the phone and call them. Email them. Start petitions. Sign petitions. Blog your opposition to censorship. Encourage your readers to do the same. Pass the word among your social networks. Contact your favorite bloggers and encourage them to follow this story. Contact your local newspaper and offer to let them interview you so they can hear a local author's perspective on this story of international significance. If you have connections to mainstream media, encourage them to pick up on the story. Encourage them to call the credit card companies and pose this simple question, "PayPal says they're trying to enforce the policies of credit card companies. Why are you censoring legal fiction?"

    Below are links to the companies waiting to hear from you. Click the link and you'll find their phone numbers, executive names and postal mailing addresses. Be polite, respectful and professional, and encourage your friends and followers to do the same. Let them know you want them out of the business of censoring legal fiction.


  4. Tell the credit card companies you want them to give PayPal permission to sell your ebooks without censorship or discrimination. Let them know that PayPal's policies are out of step with the major online ebook retailers who already accept your books as they are. Address your calls, emails (if you can find the email) and paper letters (yes paper!) to the executives. Post open letters to them on your blog, then tweet and Facebook hyperlinks to your letters. Force the credit card companies to join the discussion about censorship. And yes, express your feelings and opinions to PayPal as well. Don't scream at them. Ask them to work on your behalf to protect you and your readers from censorship. Tell them how their proposed censorship will harm you and your fellow writers.


    American Express:



    Ebay (owns PayPal):


    Starting Sunday, if our email systems can handle it, we will send out an email to several hundred thousand registered Smashwords members who are opted in to receive occasional Smashwords service updates. The email will combine Read an Ebook Week with the censorship call to action. Let's start a little fire, shall we?

    Thank you for your continuing support of Smashwords. With your help, we can move mountains.

    Best wishes,
    Mark Coker