Some of you may have heard that PayPal has issued an instruction to electronic self-publishing outlet Smashwords that it must remove erotica containing descriptions of rape, incest, or bestiality, or be denied the ability to take PayPal payments. You can see some coverage of the issue on the Smashwords site here.
Without condoning this kind of material, especially where it is created for mere titillation, let me note that throughout the world, much of this kind of material is legal. PayPal’s discrimination against it constitutes a layer of extra-legal censorship, against which there is little course for appeal, and none of the customary protections afforded citizens by a judicial system.
There is also a significant risk that literature treating of rape, incest or bestiality in a critical way (as part of a tragic narrative, for instance), will in the end be censored along with those works with a more pornographic motive. Those lovers of language among you may wonder, for instance, what would become of Lolita in this new world of ours. A self-published Nabokov may well fall afoul of an overcautious marketplace’s fear of his story of pederasty, keeping it from the public eye or, at least, denying the author compensation for his labor.
In response to protests against PayPal’s policy, today Anuj Nayar, director of communications at PayPal, issued a statement outlining his company’s cowardly decision to censor legal speech to avoid business risk.
Though Smashwords is encouraging supporters to leave comments, the PayPal blog does not currently appear to accept comments from outside users, so here is my response on the open internet:
This policy is not acceptable. Banks and payment solutions should be as neutral as the currency they handle, and not delve into their clients’ businesses, particularly where speech is involved. If these works are legal, PayPal should not discriminate against them or the companies and platforms involved in their publication.
You, PayPal, are the billion dollar company. If there is a risk that comes from this legal material, you have an ethical responsibility to shoulder it rather than caving to fear and using your power in the marketplace to create a chilling effect on speech.
Businesses, and those who run them, have a responsibility not only to protect their immediate interests, but also to consider the wellbeing of the societies in which they function, and the individuals they affect. By enacting policies that effectively censor legal books, you fail in your obligation. In short, you do evil.
The concerned among you can help the fight against internet censorship by signing this petition against PayPal’s decision, organized by the Electronic Frontier Foundation.