There has been a lot of discussion recently on some of the loops and blogs I frequent about the pressure PayPal is putting on its publishing clients to withdraw titles with certain subject matter. Mark Coker of Smashwords has been sharing his efforts to negotiate with PayPal.
Generally speaking, the crowd I run with is not in favor of institutionalized censorship. Authors and artists don’t like having boundaries put upon them, and an argument could be made that it’s only by pushing boundaries that we know where they are. It is because artists (inclusive of writers and filmmakers, etc.) frequently push the boundaries that society sometimes pushes back. This is a familiar pattern
We censor ourselves all the time. We don’t say whatever comes into our heads to our children, our parents, or our bosses. And in the latter case, we voluntarily submit to restrictions placed on us by our employers in order to have an economic relationship with those companies.
Similarly, many of us, including Smashwords, have an economic relationship with PayPal, which has an Acceptable Use policy that states (among other things):
You may not use the PayPal service for activities that: . . . 2. relate to transactions involving . . . (e) items that promote hate, violence, racial intolerance, or the financial exploitation of a crime, (f) items that are considered obscene. . .
This policy has been in place since at least last October 24th, so it’s not like PayPal just sprang this on us.
One problem with this policy, however, is that “obscene” is a vague word. That’s why PayPal is trying to further define it’s restrictions as material that pertains to incest, bestiality, and rape for titillation. (Similar restrictions that most Ebook publishers I’ve seen require.) Titles like “Daddy’s Dirty Little Virgin” which features pseudo-incest and an 18 year old protagonist are drawing negative attention. While this story is distasteful to many, it’s not illegal. And if descriptions of sexual activity in true crime stories aren’t obscene, neither are the descriptions of legal activities in this story. Creepy, yes. Obscene, no.
Likewise, it seems to me that PayPal is not equally enforcing it’s own policies. Profiting from the publication of a true crime story could be considered the “financial exploitation of a crime,” yet PayPal is not requiring those titles to be taken down. (I’d guess that PayPal means to prevent criminals from profiting from the accounts of their crimes, but this isn’t spelled out.)
Codifying the difference between art and obscenity is a difficult and slippery target. Minding society’s morals is an impossible job, and it doesn’t belong to PayPal. Will they stop allowing people to use their service to buy movie tickets because some movies have mature content? Will they stop serving Amazon or Barnes & Noble because they carry books about rape and incest and the Kama Sutra? What about books and stock photo sites that carry pictures of classical Hindu statuary? Where do they draw the line?
Is sex is okay as long as the protagonists (or the viewers/readers) don’t enjoy it?
PayPal, and it’s owner Ebay, should trust its clients to serve their customers, and trust the customers to buy only what they want. If you want a nasty, smelly cigar, you should be able to go to a smoke shop and buy it, because it’s still a legal product.
But PayPal doesn’t have to facilitate the sale.
Bed, Bath, and Beyond isn’t required to sell cigars. Nor should PayPal be required to service any particular business. However, if PayPal chooses to create and enforce a policy that excludes certain lawful products, they had better be sure that policy is clear and legal, and that they enforce it universally. They had also better be sure they want to endure the economic consequences.