Corporate Censorship Reborn: PayPal Bans Erotic Fiction

The independent book world has been beset on all sides recently. When the first e-publishers began to go to bat for independent and self-published authors, the writing world rejoiced. For too long the rapacious vanity press had taken their money and offered little in return. There is very little up-front investment for self-published authors except for a good story and a little HTML gumption and Amazon, PayPal, and Barnes & Noble (and Apple) made it easy to publish anything, any time. The market was the critic and the writer reveled in the spoils. Then things changed.

Most recently Seth Godin bumped up against Apple’s publishing guidelines when he added links to Amazon books that Apple does not sell inside his self-published e-book. There can be arguments on either side for Godin’s position that the contents of his books are his and his alone to control. However, another brewing scandal points to outright censorship. Ingrid wrote about it here but given the problems now arising with various epublishers, I thought it would be good to recap.

Following Amazon’s refusal to sell incest fiction (I’m not defending it, I’m saying it exists and given the predominance of that particular genre of staged oldster-on-teen porno on the Internet I suspect more people enjoy it than would care to admit), PayPal has decided to stop allowing its customers to pay for “erotica” through its site entirely. BookStrand, for example, posted this notice:

We were informed by PayPal, without notice, and by our credit card processing company, that we are required to remove all titles at with content containing incest, pseudo incest, rape, and bestiality, effective immediately.We request that you immediately log into your account and unpublish all titles that contain the restricted content. If you have uploaded titles containing restricted content and do not unpublish these titles as we are requesting, we will deactivate your entire publisher account, which will remove all your titles from sale.

We urge you to log into your account and remove these titles as soon as possible to prevent your account from being deactivated today.

If your account is deactivated, it may or may not be reinstated in the future. After deactivation, requests for reinstatement will require us to go through your catalog, which may take several weeks or longer for us to process.

The delightfully Orwellian “unpublish” aside, it’s clear that PayPal thinks it can police the Internet. It cannot.

As TheSelfPublishingRevolution notes, this is a bit more far-reaching than Amazon’s initial admonition. Again, we’re talking about a few relative outliers in the erotica spectrum, but presumably zombie-on-zombie, furry, and centaur son-and-mother erotica would be caught up in this dragnet. More importantly, PayPal is the everyman’s go-to choice for cash collection and they are not a publisher. Many credit card companies, for example, pay lip service to not accepting accounts from adult shops and strip clubs but boy do they enjoy the high ATM and credit fees when they do.

Another writer, Excessica [NSFW], received a call from PayPal. They said she was in violation for selling psuedo-incest books and when she followed up it was discovered that PayPal would also consider BDSM in violation. When asked about this, they clammed up. As it stands, then, PayPal doesn’t want any e-rotica to change hands. Merchants cannot sell books dealing with an obvious taboo (Woody Allen-style or non-Woody Allen style) nor can they make a lateral move into bondage.

At this point, PayPal is simply censoring content that it worries will get it into trouble. With all the Elmer Gantry-ism floating in the eddies of American life, everything looks like a potential source of pain. Were the conservative or religious to attack PayPal on the smut front, presumably, the effects on PayPal’s core business – people selling stuff to each other through eBay and, to a lesser extent, e-commerce sites – would be devastating, especially with competitors like Square coming in close behind. I find PayPal to be a sclerotic boil on the face of worldwide e-commerce, and were the heartland to feel the same way, you could envision a combined boycott of all PayPal.

To head this off, then, they attack writers who are, at worst, helping people get their rocks off in a safe, private way. Fiction harms no one and enriches many. It offers a welcome release in any form. What harm does it do? Where does this censorship stop? Can PayPal ban The Road for its mention of cannibalism? Houellebecq for his randy writing? At what point does the excuse “They don’t have to sell with us, and we don’t want them,” come back to bite these companies? And at what point do we luxuriate in sweet schadenfreude when these companies face far worse enemies – the erosion of trust, boycotts, and the like – than some folks who write dirty little books?