Perhaps feeling a bit stung by the storm of criticism brought down by its decision to insist e-book sellers pull specific types of erotica, PayPal’s Director of Communications Anuj Nayar posted an explanation on the company’s blog, explaining that unlike a number of other payment services, it does allow its service to be used for erotica in general.

Nayar insisted that “PayPal is a strong and consistent supporter of openness on the Internet, freedom of expression, independent publishing and eBook marketplaces.” However, it didn’t want to allow itself to be used for the more extreme sorts of erotica because these categories often include images, and can also blur the line between fiction and non-fiction.

The reason PayPal insisted on these types of erotica being pulled was due to the legal and business risks associated with them, not out of their personal views on the content or a desire to limit free speech. Nayar also pointed out that, as it is a business that provides a service, “the right to use PayPal is not the same as the right to speak.”

National Coalition Against Censorship Executive Director Joan Bertin has posted a response to PayPal’s explanation, noting that the company is already protected against responsibility for illegal goods in its user agreement. “IF PayPal were ever charged with processing a payment for something illegal, they would surely deny responsibility and say that the buyers and sellers are solely responsible.” But even with that being the case, the kind of content being sold by these stores was not, itself, illegal.

Then there’s this peculiar statement: “This type of content also sometimes intentionally blurs the line between fiction and non-fiction.”  So what?  Why would non-fiction be more objectionable than fiction? Besides, how can they possibly divine the author’s intent?

I actually think I understand what PayPal is getting at here. They don’t want people selling autobiographical stuff talking about the things they’ve actually done, or “how-to” guides like the pedophile guide that nut self-published on Amazon a couple of years ago—things that could be seen as promoting illegal acts in real life rather than fantasy.

Bertin’s response also notes that Smashwords’s books don’t even include images—but if images were the problem, why not tailor the policy directly to them, rather than all books in the category with or without images? (Though that being said, images are still expressive art and shouldn’t be forbidden either.)

Most telling is PayPal’s refusal to address the real problem – which is that the policy, no matter what its basis or motivation, has the effect of shutting down sales of legally-protected expression.

All the protestations about the commitment to free expression ring hollow in the face of its actions.

And that’s really the heart of the matter. Sure, you may not have the right to use PayPal for payment, and PayPal’s restriction isn’t “censorship” in its purest sense—that is, the government forbidding these forms of speech. But by being the only game in town and forbidding these forms of erotica, PayPal is preventing legally-protected free expression from being sold as effectively as any government censorship ever could.

It also strikes me that this is another example of the double-standard we have in our society: violence is always much more acceptable than sex. Just as movies are always rated much more harshly on sexual content than on violence, PayPal’s restriction means that I could write a book about a serial killer and describe his every murder in graphic, sickening detail, and that would be just fine to publish and sell (as long as the murderer wasn’t also a rapist, anyway)—but I can’t publish a story about two people who love each other if they happen to be step-parent and step-child.

What kind of sense does that make?

Meanwhile, the EFF has put together an email-writing campaign to get PayPal to rescind its restrictions. It’s unclear whether it will have any effect—especially since it adheres to the traditional “slacktivism” pattern of getting people to send an email rather than trying to convince them to write a real physical letter. But maybe every little bit will help. (Found via TechDirt.)


  1. Your hypothetical at the end isn’t quite accurate. If they are targeting erotica that includes incest, then other forms of literature that include incest, or a non-smutty “story about two people who love each other if they happen to be step-parent and step-child,” would be viable unless Smashwords tagged it.

    That shouldn’t matter, though, nor should the context of it being graphic violence or graphic sex. The censorship of fictional prose is alarming regardless of the demo targeted. It’s not about a double-standard in society or among PayPal’s masters, or what kind of material your or I like to read.

  2. PayPal is NOT the “only game in town.” There are other pay systems, and it’s the duty of every vendor that doesn’t like PayPal’s new rules to seek another pay system. The best way to get them to change is to show them you’re willing to go elsewhere… by actually doing it.

    Complaining loudly does nothing if everyone knows you’re not prepared to leave PayPal; and PayPal won’t care unless it hits their bottom line.

  3. This topic is frankly getting a little old. Paypal, as a private business is free to set any standards it wants, and companies are free to find other payment vehicles should they disagree with those standards. This is not true censorship. True censorship is when the government or some other entity with power prevents the publication of any media (or requires the editing of such media) and leaves no recourse to the producer of said media to publish it.

    As anyone, who spends anytime on the internet, clearly knows, there are many alternate publishing options out there for anyone who really feels a burning need to publish such works. As Mr. Jordan pointed out, there are also alternate methods of collecting payment.

  4. It is certainly true that there are MANY alternatives to Paypal, even for the very small merchant doing a few very low dollar transactions.

    It is also true that the ebooks this directive targets are the ones skirting the edge of illegality. There ARE some things that, even in a free-press society, we just don’t want to have published. Bomb making instructions, and child pornography are two examples.

    Yes, Paypal’s implementation of their perfectly reasonable desire to avoid selling certain things is apparently quite poor. But I’ve long thought that about other of Paypal’s policies and operations.

    In fact, unless you’re using eBay, which is a pretty poor marketplace for most ebooks, I don’t see a single reason to use Paypal.

  5. While I am drawn somewhat to MarylandBill’s argument, I don’t believe that the private business analogy stands up.
    They are entitled to run their business as they see fit, but they should NOT be free to tell OTHER businesses how to run their business.

    I have cancelled by Paypal account and others should do the same. This is a critically important issue that has enormous implications in other areas of life.

    I find the arguments about ‘erotica’ and ‘incest’ being put out by Paypal to be wholly noxious and bogus. When is a book ‘erotica’ ? how many erotic sentences is the threshold ? 50 ? 100 ? 2 ? Is a book to be classed as ‘erotica’ if the sellers class it as ‘erotica’ ? or do we all reclassify them as ‘adult reading’ ? Are paypal going to read every book and count the erotic content ?

    If a spy novel includes a case of incest does that trigger their outrage ? of does it have to be an erotic scene ? or a whole chapter ? or five chapters ? What relationship qualifies as incest ? how many cousins removed ? How ‘step’ is ‘step’ ?

    The whole thing is an appalling mess.

  6. Howard,
    It was not a private business analogy, PayPal is a private business, period. Yes, you are free to to not use them, that is your choice. They however are free to set standards for what sort of client they will work with. Lots of business do the same; I don’t know if it was common any more, but I think Walmart use to require CD’s to be edited of objectionable content before they would sell them.

    Transactions between two business impact both companies. If one company engages in practices that the other finds objectionable, the second company has the right to raise concerns, and if those concerns are not met, the right to refuse to do business with the first company. Both companies need to agree to do business unless we want to live in a command economy (and trust me we don’t).

  7. MarylandBill – I don’t fully accept you case, and I expect we can only agree to differ. Paypal does not sell the items in question and should have no role in restricting the product or service unless it is deemed illegal. Walmart sold the CDs in their stores. PayPay trades only a transaction between them and the seller. I see this as a fundamental difference.

  8. MarylandBill – Yes I do. The service they offer is essentially one delivered to the customer and is a purely cash/commercial one. It does not involve the actual product or service. Hence the nature of the product/service should really be of no concern to PayPal imho.
    What happens if all of the online payment companies refuse to service far left wing political book sales ? or far right wing books sales ? What if all of them refuse to service businesses who oppose US foreign policy because they want to keep in the US Gov’s good books ? What is they all refuse to service any publisher of writings not approved of by the Muslim Council ? or the Vatican ?
    This is a chilling prospect and yet it is perfectly possible.

  9. I think you are worrying about a world that does not exist. If anything, the nature of humans seems to be that any unserved or under-served market will find someone willing to serve it.

    Paypal’s service certainly enables others to do business, as a result, I don’t think they can absolve themselves of responsibility for what those other businesses use their service to achieve. I know many don’t find any problem with erotica, but some still find it objectionable, and don’t want any part of it, even indirectly.

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