12 March 2012

Censorship and PayPal

The PayPal company wrote to several small, independent publishers a few weeks ago, telling them to remove works from their catalogues that they, PayPal, considered to be unsuitable types of “erotica” (the quotes are theirs). These “erotic” publications were those dealing with rape, bestiality and incest. The publications were all works of fiction.

PayPal is a service provider, a financial middleman between credit card companies and banks and the consumer; it does not edit, print, publish or distribute these works.

Unsurprisingly, there has been a considerable backlash from the writers of these works, as well as from the publishers and readers. It’s apparent that many writers and readers are women, who, though I don’t think they’ve actually said so in as many words, clearly regard this as yet another example of paternalism.

You might not approve of the content of these works of fiction, but then you are under no obligation to purchase or read them. Just because you don’t like something is not a reason to ban or censor it. And while the activities are to a greater or lesser extent illegal, writing about them in the form of fiction is not. (Nor is writing about them factually, or for the purposes of education.) And if you think there’s something strange about women wanting to read stories about rape, well apparently some 40% of women have rape fantasies, so there is clearly a market for such fiction.

But you should be concerned about this attempt at censorship.

The PayPal company initial attempt to justify its actions by indicating that they themselves had come under pressure from their financial partners. These partners include Ebay, who own PayPal, and credit card companies.

PayPal subsequently tried to explain their actions on a blog piece, available here. Many commentators have excoriated the reasons they gave, that such fiction is illustrated (it isn’t), that it tends to the non-fiction (it doesn’t, even if stories are written in the first person); and that there were legal and risk perspectives which they didn’t elaborate on. (Don’t bother trying to leave a comment on the blog; only authorised personnel can do that.)

The credit card company Visa responded to the suggestion that they had put pressure on PayPal. They hadn’t, and said that they didn’t interfere with what their customers bought, as long as it wasn’t illegal.
So, why did PayPal attempt to censor publications, the effect being to destroy the businesses of small publishers, and limit the availability of writers’ fiction?

If you think about censorship, it’s about ideas which a powerful group finds inappropriate, ideas which may threaten the established order: it has a long history. Scientific thought has been censored (e.g. Copernicus and the heliocentric theory), political thought has been censored (e.g. Voltaire), as have works of fiction (James Joyce and many, many others). And you know what? Copernicus and Voltaire were right, and Joyce’s Ulysses is widely regarded as the 20th century novel. The lesson is this: that while you can ban or censor something, sooner or later it will emerge and be recognised. Ideas once expressed cannot be erased by fiat.

Powerful interests fear what’s written, seeing it as having the potential to disturb their empires and their carefully constructed identities.

What then is PayPal afraid of? And why did they suddenly, and with no warning, attempt this censorship? Tellingly, on the blog they refer to their “brand, regulatory and compliance risk” without indicating what regulations they might be breaking, or what they aren’t complying with. PayPal knew what their merchant publishers sold when they signed them up, didn’t they? Or if they didn’t, why not? What caused this volte-face?

It’s my feeling that PayPal fear for their corporate image and identity (their “brand”), as if the contamination of what they perceive as inappropriate “erotica” will taint them, like a toxic, miasmic contagion, for as long as they permit its purchase through their payment mechanism. (Visa do not have this problem.) Their loss of revenue from such “erotica” would be trivially small in comparison to their total turnover, an irrelevance.

Why now? Well, I’d guess that they have received a letter or letters of complaint from people or organisations who don’t like erotica and who wish its suppression. Nowadays, the public expectation is of an instant response to a complaint, even if the problem has never previously been considered. Often the initial response is one of denial; clearly PayPal couldn’t deny that its service was used to buy erotica. And they didn’t want to be seen to condone it. They could try then to extricate themselves by telling the merchants what they can’t sell, and transfer the “blame”. (And hope that it all goes away, quietly.)

The “our financial partners made us do it” argument has been exposed, at least as far as Visa is concerned, as a sham; PayPal were dissembling about this. What else, we might ask in passing, were they dissembling about? Once a few rumbles of discontent — “chatter” in PayPal’s curious terminology — surfaced, they offered up an exculpatory explanation to the public as a blog.

The blog’s inaccuracies and general wrong-headedness suggest that it was something cobbled together, in a hurry, after the event to try to justify their actions; from a company that, until then, did not have any policy about such fiction, and which has had a knee-jerk reaction to an event they had not foreseen. And this despite them saying that it has been their policy for years. By contrast, Visa had clearly thought about such issues, though perhaps not in such fine detail, and had worked out their policy, and were able to describe it in straightforward terms, without dissimulation, ambiguity or recourse to their “risks”.

I don’t think it likely that PayPal will reconsider and rescind their actions in the short term; corporate bodies don’t like admitting that they were wrong, nor do they relish the prospect of losing their amour-propre. Public relations managers use a three-stage method that they could employ here; firstly, a statement of regret; secondly, an admission of responsibility; and thirdly, an offer to repair the situation. Watch here how Bill Clinton did it. Will PayPal do this?

The website bannedwriters.com was set up as a direct result of this censorship attempt by PayPal; the backstory is detailed there. It’s well worth a visit.

1 comment:

  1. "...clearly PayPal couldn’t deny that its service was used to buy erotica. And they didn’t want to be seen to condone it. They could try then to extricate themselves by telling the merchants what they can’t sell, and transfer the “blame”.'

    I think you paint a very fair portrait of what probably went on at Paypal. But consider its statement in contrast to Visa's.

    "...we strive to respect the many different perspectives that citizens of the world hold, and we avoid taking sides when those opinions differ."

    It's like putting Joe Blow - passing grade MBA student up against The Starship Enterprise and its Prime Directive.

    One is cobbled together nonsense. The other aligns its answer on this issue with a sound corporate mission and vision statement.