Of course, there is nothing new with attempts to culturally filter erotic literature just as there is nothing new with erotic literature itself. Isn’t porn what the printing press was invented for? Not to mention the internet. But we aren’t talking about government censorship here … hell, PayPal isn’t even a proper bank.
The row erupted when indie eBook publisher Smashwords was warned to pull down offending literature or risk account deactivation. PayPal, whose founder Peter Thiel, promotes himself as a true American libertarian, has the power to block accounts without notice.
Other independents under threat include AllRomance, Excessica and Bookstrand. All face more than cash flow problems if they do not bow to PayPal demands. Their very business models rely on ‘online banking’ to drive transactions for book sales.
Being an eBay company has advantages when you’re in the business of e-money. A virtual monopoly, PayPal may be banking on its unique position when it comes to shrugging off the possibility of customers closing their accounts in protest. Nate Hoffelder blogging for The Digital Reader puts it thus: ‘It’s like the only paper supplier won’t deal with you because of what you’re going to print on it. No one should have that much power.’
In responding to its critics, PayPal gives what at first sounds a reasonable response. ‘We believe that the Internet empowers authors in a way that is positive and points to an even brighter future for writers, artists and creators the world over…’ But if that makes it sound like PayPal are for freedom of speech, here’s how the rest of that sentence from their blog continues … ‘but we draw the line at certain adult content that is extreme or potentially illegal.’
In deciding what is extreme or ‘potentially’ illegal, the hard facts of credit card chargebacks is in the mix along with the international brand via a public feedback loop. The Acceptable Use Policy requires uses not to promote certain extreme "obscene" content. But those vague words are open to interpretation and PayPal itself recently qualified ‘extreme’ as ‘material focused on rape, incest or bestiality’.
However well intentioned PayPal wants to seem, its right to make such decisions is not only dubious but dangerous. According to the Association of American Publishers ‘financial services providers should be neutral in lawful online speech matters’. Or as a headline in business magazine Forbes puts it, ‘Credit Card Companies Should Process Payments Not Censor Content’.