Sunday, 25 March 2012

Hot and Steamy Off the Press: Visa Claims PayPal Censoring Erotica

There's been a mini-scandal recently involving small presses and self-published authors at Smashwords. The scandal has largely been sorted by consumer pressure, but it indicates a worrying level of interference by big business in the right to freedom of expression.

First, PayPal allegedly contacted Smashwords and said they must pull all titles featuring any kind of rape, bestiality, incest and the like. Naturally, Smashwords felt this was a case of censorship against erotica titles, and that corporate business was imposing its values upon literature. It's worth pointing out that this would have mainly affected women writers and readers too, since they are the main writers of and audience for erotica.

PayPal gave Smashwords less than a week to remove all offending titles.

Then PayPal claimed, in their response to Smashwords, that the censorship was imposed by Visa. Visa, on the other hand, blamed PayPal, in what became a sort of pass-the-parcel blame game.

It seems to me neither organisation wanted to take responsibility for what would be a dangerous precedent, and one that seemed to fly in the face of the US's love for freedom of expression. I'm not entirely sure who was to blame, but there was lots of finger-pointing, and ultimately it was PayPal that requested the change.

According to a later update at Smashwords, the deadline for removing content had been extended by PayPal, and some clarification on which books should be removed was also provided. This was the first hint that common sense and consumer pressure was having an effect:
There's a sliver of hope that I might be able to obtain a more positive, less restrictive outcome than I communicated on Friday, yet it's unlikely we'll achieve the true result I want (no censorship) in the near term. Today, PayPal hinted at a more relaxed definition of prohibited content as, according to them [I'm paraphrasing], "probited boooks would be those 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."
Finally, in a victory for Smashwords and publishing in general, PayPal appears to have delivered a U-turn:
First and foremost, we are going to focus this policy only on e-books that contain potentially illegal images, not e-books that are limited to just text. The policy will prohibit use of PayPal for the sale of e-books that contain child pornography, or e-books with text and obscene images of rape, bestiality or incest (as defined by the U.S. legal standard for obscenity: material that appeals to the prurient interest, depicts sexual conduct in a patently offensive way, and lacks serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value). 
It now seems that only books which would have already been illegal under US law will be pulled.

This incident does give me hope. It shows us that we do have a voice and, when we band together, we can stop big businesses bullying us into submission. Writers shouldn't feel constrained by subject matter and taste. They should only feel constrained by the law. I'm glad that, in this case, the law won out, and not money.

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