Latest news: Paypal has now adopted sensible policies! Thanks to everyone who pressured Paypal over this. Dianna (in the comments below) pointed me to the new Paypal policy, which no longer bans legal works: it will only prohibit using Paypal for items that are potentially breaking the law, which is a thoroughly reasonable compromise that everyone should be happy with. Smashwords has covered the new situation here as well as sending an email to all their authors, so thanks to them for their work in protecting the rights of creative minds to write - and publish - legal fiction. If you don't know what I'm talking about then read the post below for background. Is it coincidence that Paypal retracted their plans to censor works almost as soon as my post went up? (Actually, yes, it was coincidence, but it still make me happy).

Paypal has been criticised by many writers recently for their decision to refuse to work with some publishers if Paypal don't like the content of any of their books. The further twist is that the stated rules they claim to be basing things on are peculiarly arbitrary, and applied selectively (e.g. they are not applying them to large publishers, or to publishers of works that break their rules but which are well-known).

Writers' Village first brought the issue to my attention; then I came across this parody which imagines a world where this approach is taken to its extremes on the Smashwords Blog. Dianna Hardy makes some good points, and the National Coalition Against Censorship also covered the topic, stating: "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."

Why does it matter?

What bothers me is that if it is illegal to write about something, then it doesn't need to be enforced by Paypal. That is what the authorities and legal system are there for. And if it is not illegal, then - despite the spin Paypal is trying to place on this - it is an attempt to enforce a form of moral censorship.

It further bothers me that there are no clear criteria on this. If someone were to write a story like Oedipus Rex now, then according to their new rules Paypal would stop working with the e-book publisher due to the story being "focused on incest". Paypal seem to be saying that if a book focusses on any of these subjects they are unhappy with then it must automatically be some form of glorification of it; in reality it may well be the opposite. Will Paypal be refusing to work with the publishers of some of Maya Angelou's early works? The lack of objective criteria is sloppy and worrying, because it is so obviously something that can be arbitrarily applied by Paypal.

I also sense hypocrisy here. Why is it that Paypal is annoyed at books which include rape, yet is happy to work with a publisher whose books are full of murder? Why is incest in a book worse that scenes of torture, which Paypal seems to have no qualms with?

Paypal attempted to justify their policy, shifting their stance slightly, claiming it was now related to 'erotica', on their blog. So will they refuse to work with Amazon, who sell this, erotica which is full of rape? Erm, no, they won't. Amazon is too big to threaten. (Note that the same book can also be bought and sold through eBay, which owns Paypal). Basically Paypal want a set of rules they can ignore whenever they want.

Further Paypal censorship - this time censorship of debate

Their blog post ends with: "We always welcome your feedback"; around the screen are links saying "Contact Us", "Connect With Us" (appears twice), "Other Ways to Connect", and "Leave A Comment" (right below the blog post). However, when I left a polite comment, at their invitation, questioning their stance, they deleted it. Likewise with my second comment. And they went on to delete every other comment posted on their blog, by anyone. Their attempts to stifle discussion failed, since it led to an even bigger discussion on Facebook and other online social spaces. It is certainly dishonest to imply that you want to 'connect' with people, but then delete their discussion. It suggests that Paypal have no idea what social media is really for. Therefore I give black marks to Paypal for attempting to censor the debate on censorship (it's amusing that it relates to a blog post by their Director of Communications). Refusing to post comments critical of their policy undermines their whole "This is not censorship" argument.

I told them so, but they deleted that comment too.

Their attempt to spin things in their blog post was not a reassurance, it was a reaffirmation of the fears of many in the literary community that Paypal is using its power to threaten publishers, writers and freedom of speech. The law looks after what is illegal, and Paypal acting like this gives the impression of an impatient wannabe dictator enforcing their own perspectives in an arbitrary and prejudiced way. Arbitrary - because there is no clear underlying principle. Is it that they are banning writing about illegal acts? No, because they allow writing about other illegal acts. Is it that they ban things connected to suffering? No, because they allow writing including torture, murder, war etc. How can their criteria be measured or quantified consistently? They can't.

What can you do?
  • You could post on Paypal's blog... Oh no, I forgot, they delete all the comments. 
  • The excellent Electronic Frontier Foundation (defending our online rights) has a petition.
  • Look into other online micro-payment providers - Paypal is not the only player.
  • Nothing, Paypal backed down!