PayPal Puts the Screws on Erotica

by wjw on February 27, 2012

I’ve always thought that PayPal was a useful service, and regretted the fact that they crashed every time I tried to log onto them.  (Even when I tried to logon through other people’s computers, they crashed.  It’s not the computer, it’s me.  I am cursed.)

Be that as it may, I’m not so sorry anymore about being unable to use Paypal.  Because they’re now using their financial power to censor the work of authors.

Specifically, they have ordered Smashwords to remove certain kinds of erotica from their site, and to do it in just ten days.

Now, erotica is one of the two killer apps for the Internet.  (The other is games.)  Smashwords and other sites host a lot of erotica— in fact, when I logged on recently, all of the most recent uploads on their home page were erotica of one sort of another. My guess is they’ve got all sorts of people uploading and downloading sexy stuff all day, all to their joy and mutual gratification.  (And, in this context, don’t the very words “uploading” and “downloading” begin to take on a certain sexual charge?)

My guess is that 100% of Smashwords’ sales go through PayPal, which is not only used to purchase fiction but to process credit card sales.  Most of the authors are paid via PayPal.  (Though not me, because I’m PayPal’s personal nemesis.)

So Smashwords had no choice but to accede to PayPal’s demands.  The alternative was to close up shop entirely.

(I’ve also heard that PayPal has put the screws to AllRomance and Bookstrand, sites I’ve never heard of till now.)

What PayPal demanded was that Smashwords remove erotica featuring bestiality, rape, incest, and “pseudo-incest,” which I guess is where the participants are legally but not biologically related.   (Pedophilia was already banned by Smashwords’ terms of service.)  Now it’s not like I particularly want to defend stories in which humans have sexual relationships with barn animals, or in which violence is depicted as a form of titillation, but I also don’t want some third party— a bank, no less!— deciding what is suitable for me to read.

PayPal in turn may be responding to credit-card companies like Visa and Mastercard, who enforce “chargebacks” against “high-risk” sites, where there’s an increased chance of overcharging or identity theft.  (Gambling and porn sites are considered high-risk.)  So PayPal might have been reacting to pressure from credit-card companies.

Now what we have here, folks, is— hmm, what’s the word I’m looking for?— stupidity.  Because none of these companies are actually looking at the internet firm in question, they’re just creating arbitrary categories and punishing any company that seems to fit them.

Smashwords is a perfectly legitimate outfit, it’s not Bangkok Bang-Bang or Horny Schoolgirls or Donkey Show Dee-lite.  My guess is it doesn’t practice identity theft and doesn’t create spurious charges.  And PayPal’s own records should show that.  So their defense for their action is either 1.) We’re really really stupid and we don’t know our own business or for that matter how to consult our own records, duh, or 2.) We’re a bunch of puritanical, dictatorial asswipes.

Bear in mind that this is the freakin’ Internet we’re talking about.  The Internet flows around obstacles.  When PayPal cuts itself out of a part of its cash flow, that cash flow will go elsewhere.  Guar-on-teed.

And while I acknowledge that the subject of incest is complex and problematical and most often tragic, so is incest’s relationship with literature equally complex.  Lose depictions of incest, and we lose Homer (all those Olympians are very closely related).  We lose crucial stories by Le Guin and Heinlein.  We lose Wagner (Brunhilda was Siegfried’s auntie).  We lose bits of Poe, Shelley, John Irving, A.S. Byatt, Doris Lessing, Frank Herbert, and Theodore Sturgeon.  Gone is Le Morte d’Arthur (Modred is the result of an incestuous relationship between Arthur and his half-sister), Game of Thrones, Oedipus Rex, One Hundred Years of Solitude, and Nabokov’s dazzling Ada.

So who the hell is PayPal to decide what we can read, write, and upload?  Nobody elected them.  Their decision-making process is completely opaque, and the results completely arbitrary.

We’ve been hearing warnings for decades about the Nanny State.

Nobody thought to warn us about the Nanny Bank.

Michael Mock February 27, 2012 at 3:05 pm

I gave up on Paypal after that pre-Christmas incident with Regretsy – canceled my account, answered their “why don’t you love us anymore?” questionnaire, and went on my merry way. At this point, I’m perfectly willing to go out of my way not to use them.

DensityDuck February 27, 2012 at 6:37 pm

When you wonder why people are scared of a future where the government runs everything?

Imagine if Paypal were the government, and you’ll understand why they’re scared.

“Oh but we can elect different people–” ho, ho, ho, not in the Federal regulatory bureacuracy you can’t! The people who work there have a degree of control that totalitarian despots dream about, and the closest any of them ever get to a ballot is that their boss’s boss’s boss is appointed by the President.

Ian Randal Strock February 28, 2012 at 6:39 am

I think you’re cutting them too much slack, trying to find excuses for their behavior. Sure sounds entirely like puritanical “we can throw our morals into your faces because we can” nonsense. I only use PayPal when I absolutely have to, which is almost never.

Jim Janney February 29, 2012 at 1:16 am

And a personal favorite of mine, Poul Anderson’s _The Broken Sword_.

Anne Harris/Jessica Freely February 29, 2012 at 5:42 pm

Great post. There’s a petition, btw, and I’m running a contest in connection with it:

JFM February 29, 2012 at 6:34 pm

They did this first with firearms and firearm related products. I’m not surprised that they are branching out.

drakes March 9, 2012 at 12:38 pm

I don’t like Paypal’s decision here one bit.

If I were to speculate, they may have been going after “high-risk” sites but put the hammer down categorically and sites like Smashwords got caught too. Perhaps they were moving to catch businesses which frequently disappear and pop up as new sites, but even in such a case I still don’t have sympathy for Paypal when they cast an overly broad net instead of operating more intelligently.

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