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PayPal’s Business Rules Force Smashwords to Pull Certain Erotic Content

March 4, 2012

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.

  1. summer t permalink
    March 4, 2012 6:50 am

    It’s also a problem because it is using only Titles and blurbs key words to ban “inappropriate content.” For example, a plot that is actually about roleplaying between adults is still considered inappropriate if one character is referred to as “Daddy.” And “The Wolf I Loved” would be banned because of suggested bestiality — when in fact it might be the character’s surname or a shapeshifter paranormal plot.

    In all cases, censorship is wrong. The marketplace can bear it out, or drive it out. It is not the moneychangers’ responsibility to decide what can and cannot be sold.

  2. Chris Hamilton permalink
    March 4, 2012 8:10 am

    In all cases? So Amazon should be selling the pedophile how-to manual?

    Also, Erin Andrews might disagree with your statement about censorship. She was the ESPN report who had naked video of her posted online after someone shot video through a peephole. Pulling that video down is censorship. It’s also appropriate.

  3. March 7, 2012 1:15 am

    I actually think that PayPal’s decision is spot on. Aside from moral issues, all the acts listed on the no-no list are illegal (well, not underage sex when both participants are underage–but portraying them certainly is). Including them in erotica is an endorsement of these behaviors and lets people who participate in them feel that the behaviors are acceptable and healthy. PayPal’s decision could save them a costly lawsuit, and if I were Smashwords, I’d be afraid, too.

    And that’s just the practical side. From the moral side, let’s think of it this way:

    When molesters are arrested, they are frequently found in possession of pornography (or erotica, if you’d rather call it that) that includes images such as those that offend the PayPal folks. Viewing such works is an integral part of these people’s illness, and it validated the evil inclinations within them. They used them to plan these acts and move on to real life. If PayPal says they don’t want to aid and abet such behavior–good for them!

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