PayPal’s Business Rules Force Smashwords to Pull Certain Erotic Content
I choose not to write or read erotica. It’s just not my thing. In some cases, it’s not Paypal’s thing, either. Yesterday on Facebook, a member of the Florida Writers Association let me know that PayPal told Smashwords, an e-book distributor for independent writers and publishers, that it must pull certain types of erotic content or PayPal will no longer process payments for the website. According to Smashwords CEO Mark Coker, PayPal’s “hot buttons are bestiality, rape-for-titillation, incest and underage erotica.”
It’s easy to have a snap reaction to this. Maybe you believe that a payment processor should not dictate terms to a content provider. Or maybe you think that PayPal’s hot buttons are appropriate and reasonable, and there’s no reason for such material to be available. Besides, PayPal isn’t saying to ban all content that references bestiality, rape-for-titillation, incest, and underage sex–just erotica. And it’s not banning all erotica.
Either way, you’re wrong.
Late last year, a firestorm arose when Amazon decided to sell The Pedophile’s Guide to Love and Pleasure. After initially saying it backed the First Amendment, Amazon reversed course and pulled the book, the right decision, in my estimation. The First Amendment gives you the right to say almost anything you want. It doesn’t mean Amazon has to sell it.
This circumstance is a little different. Smashwords has made a decision to allow this type of content and a third party is effectively dictating terms. Smashwords can’t allow PayPal to pull the plug because its website architecture doesn’t allow them to swap out payment providers (poor design, in my opinion). If Smashwords wants to continue to do business, it must give in to PayPal’s demands.
PayPal has the right to say it doesn’t want to be involved in the distribution of this type of content. Without seeing PayPal’s justification–I didn’t see any references to it–it may have valid reasons for these changes. If someone reads a rape scene in erotica, then does the same thing to a woman–or a girl–PayPal could face liability for its part in distributing the content. And if Smashwords had designed its website better, it could change payment providers without having to rewrite its coding. What happens to it if PayPal goes out of business?
On the other hand, you don’t have to be a First Amendment absolutist to be concerned about the power this middleman wields. I personally don’t have a problem with PayPal saying it won’t help distribute these types of erotica. But PayPal could make other decisions. It could decide that erotica shouldn’t be distributed. It could decide that conservatism is hate speech and refuse to distribute conservative content. Or that liberal content is harmful to our future and refuse to distribute liberal content.
Under the First Amendment, it has the right to do so. Again, you have the right to speak, but you don’t have the right to be heard. But PayPal’s power in this case is nervous-making. It shows how in our electronic world, a robust engine for free expression can easily be derailed.