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Mar 08 2012

Meet Your Financial Industry Censor

A couple of days ago, I explained why government censorship was bad. One of the reasons was the monopoly power of governments–it is not an easy thing to change your government. By extension, when companies that have monopoly power make choices that limit speech, we should scrutinize (and generally resist) that behavior.

Enter credit card companies, PayPal, and erotica.

PayPal, which plays a dominant role in processing online sales, has taken full advantage of the vast and open nature of the Internet for commercial purposes, but is now holding free speech hostage by clamping down on sales of certain types of erotica. As organizations and individuals concerned with intellectual and artistic freedom and a free Internet, we strongly object to PayPal functioning as an enforcer of public morality and inhibiting the right to buy and sell constitutionally protected material.

Recently, PayPal gave online publishers and booksellers, including BookStrand.com, Smashwords, and eXcessica, an ultimatum: it would close their accounts and refuse to process all payments unless they removed erotic books containing descriptions of rape, incest, and bestiality. The result would severely restrict the public’s access to a wide range of legal material, could drive some companies out of business, and deprive some authors of their livelihood.

No, this is not popular speech. It is, however, legal speech. No one has yet demonstrated any public interest in barring this particular brand of speech that outweighs the public interest of keeping it unrestricted. Whether or not you personally think that overriding interest exists, that isn’t the point.

The point is that financial muscle is being exercised, not to determine what people can buy from the companies setting the rules, but to determine what people can buy at all. Today it is certain kinds of “icky” erotica that are being pushed out out of the marketplace. In the past, almost certainly in the future, and probably even right now, other works on the topics of rape and incest have come under fire for being “icky”. Most commonly, “problem novels”, books on weighty subjects aimed at teen readers, have been targeted. Censors are not known for being discerning.

Banks and credit card companies should not be telling you how you can and can’t–legally–use your money. Yet they’re the ones behind this. PayPal was enforcing their terms of service when it started making business decisions for these publishers.

That’s not a bank’s job. That’s not a credit card company’s job. Their jobs are, as we hear so much, to make money, usually for stockholders. That makes policies stating that certain legal things can’t drive business their way counter to their jobs. It’s bad business.

And if they’re going to turn censorship into a hobby, just because they can, it’s still more than past time to take these companies apart. Make enough smaller companies that they’ll find a competitive advantage in serving their customers again.

That may not be exactly what Smashwords (who have been working hard to carve all the room for speech out of this they can while still engaging in financial transactions) means when they push people to shout about this:

My objective is for PayPal and Smashwords to pull the credit card companies into a more open discussion about these issues. I want all financial institutions to reevaluate their policies. I want the banks to change or clarify their policies toward something more enlightened. I want PayPal to loosen their policies. We need financial institutions to get out of the business of telling writers what they can write and what readers can read. Without this much-needed debate, the slippery slope gets more slippery for all indies.

[...] The campaign at hand goes beyond erotica authors. It’s an indie issue. Indies are breaking the boundaries previously set by large traditional publishers. This boundary-breaking scares people. We should welcome the debate about what a “good book” should look like. I think a good book is anything legal that readers want to read, even if I don’t want to read it myself.

This campaign represents an incredible long shot. To move this forward, I need your help. Even if you don’t publish in the categories directly impacted by this crackdown, this campaign matters to you.

What can you do to move things forward? First, direct your attention where it matters most. Contact your credit card company or congressperson and tell them you want financial services companies out of the business of censoring what writers and readers are free to imagine with fiction. Blog about it. Tweet about it. Contact your favorite blogger and encourage them to raise awareness. Start petitions and tell financial institutions you want their censors out of your head. Contact the media. The media, with your urging, has the power to shine a bright light on the dangerous slipperly slope of censorship by financial institutions.

Smashwords is talking regulation and shaming. Those are good too. Don’t be too surprised, however, if the banks feel insulated enough to ignore the shaming. “Yeah? What are you going to do without a credit card, little person?” Too big to fail means many things.

We may have to make them smaller. Then again, when they get into de facto governance, it’s time to do that anyway.

5 comments

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  1. 1
    F [i'm not here, i'm gone]

    Indeed. This is one more reason to limit the rights (and possibly the size) of corporations. I hadn’t thought about it from that particular angle when I’d first read about this. (Which is odd, because it is generally something I think without regard to any specific current issue of interest.) My first thought was that they should not be able to do that, and my second was why the hell did they do that?

  2. 2
    michaeld

    And I’m not surprised at all. Paypal has for a long time not allowed adult sites for example to use their service. So I can’t say I’m terribly shocked they want to start enforcing some of their ideas on other parts of the clientele.

  3. 3
    James Carey

    Reminds me a bit of when Mastercard and Visa refused to process donation transactions for Wikileaks.

  4. 4
    notscarlettohara

    That’s actually pretty hypocritical that they’re just targeting those sites. Don’t Game of Thrones and Girl with the Dragon Tattoo qualify for their ban? In which case they’d have to drop pretty much every website that sells books? Or do those not count because they’re popular and therefore make PayPal lots of money on transactions?

  5. 5
    George W.

    The point is that financial muscle is being exercised, not to determine what people can buy from the companies setting the rules, but to determine what people can buy at all.

    The real point is that they are leveraging the money of the consumer to restrict the consumer. I don’t particularly mind companies using their own money to express their social goals, but I’ll be damned if they are going to use my money.

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