Tuesday, March 06, 2012

Censorship: Smashwords and Paypal

Image Courtesty Technologia

 Paypal is forcing Smashwords to remove books and content “with themes of rape, incest, underage sexuality and bestiality.” It’s been all over Twitter and a range of blogs. I haven’t seen similar buzz about anything happening with Amazon, although that company’s attitude toward controversial content buzzes periodically.

Just in case you haven’t heard, last week, Paypal told Smashwords to “remove all titles containing bestiality, rape or incest, otherwise they threatened to deactivate our PayPal account,” according to a statement in Smashwords’ news page. Smashwords President Mark Coker went on to explain his company’s reaction: “We engaged them in discussions and on Monday they gave us a temporary reprieve as we continue to work in good faith to find a suitable solution.

“PayPal tells us that their crackdown is necessary so that they can remain in compliance with the requirements of the banks and credit card associations.”

According to the Self-Publishing Review, the big credit card companies and associations are pushing for this sanitizing of publishing sites. Apparently, this kind of action falls outside the protection of the First Amendment in the US because it’s done by private companies, not the government.

The payment operators are within their rights to allow anyone they want or not to use their technology and systems. So is this censorship?

Yes. A group or company—people, somewhere along the line—are telling others what they can and cannot publish. It amounts to a restriction on expression.

On one hand, it’s hard to argue with the sentiment. Paypal and the other companies are restricting content that most of us, I think, find repugnant: incest, bestiality and rape. Who’s going to stand up for rape? Anyone?

I won’t be the first to point out though that this kind of restriction is blunt. If we ban depictions of rape, what will happen to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo?

Would Lolita pass muster? It has been banned at various times for its central theme of underage sexuality.

As Smashwords President Mark Coker said in the company’s news release: “How does one judge whether the taboo subjects are incidental instances or major themes? Where does one draw the line? The PayPal rep and I agreed our discussion will continue, and they assured me our PayPal services will not be cut off as we both work in good faith to advance the discussions.”

Some say that the distinction between porn and literature like Lolita is clear. But that’s still subjective. Your line may be in a very different place than my line—in other words, we probably have differences over which category to put a particular work.

I am a little worried about my first novel, now available on Smashwords (and elsewhere), because someone could argue it portrays underage sexuality. I have a strong argument, I think: it’s not porn, it’s literature; and it’s set in the 6th century, when most people were married and having children by age 16.

What I think the pro-censorship crowd needs to understand is this: censorship never works. It never has. Remember samizdat? When the Communist Party controlled eastern Europe, it banned “seditious” content, including novels by politically dangerous writers like Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Boris Pasternak and Vaclav Havel. So people made copies on little mimeographs in their basements and distributed them surreptitiously to others who though independently of the Communist Party. No matter how hard the Communists tried, the ideas still circulated.

The less you see, the less you want others to see

Back when I was in university, I was part of a group that conducted a survey about the public’s attitude toward sex and violence in movies. We found—or rather, confirmed—two interesting things.

The first, that those who thought that gratuitous sex (and sometimes violence) should not be shown in mass-market cinemas tended to watch fewer movies. The more people went out to movies (this was so long ago, that people actually went out to movies more than they rented them in their homes), the less likely they were to agree to restrictions on content.

At the same time, even people who thought that sexual and violent content should be curtailed in some way did not think they were influenced one way or another by that content.

In other words, censorship is something we want to do to other people, but not to ourselves.

I certainly do not want to read about, much less see rape, incest or bestiality. But I will say that, sometimes, rape is a legitimate part of a story. It happens.

As for bestiality, again, it’s something that I don’t want to read or hear about; Mark Coker mentioned some time ago that this subject required some fine combing when it comes to paranormal romance. If Twilight’s Bella gets it on with the werewolf, even in his human form, does it come close to bestiality? Clearly, he’s not human. Then again, neither is Edward, the sparkly vampire. I think there is someone, somewhere, who would see that as something similar to bestiality.

So what’s the solution?

The problem with these subjects is not in their expression, but in their commission. Does reading about rape encourage rapists? I don’t know. I doubt that reading about shagging a werewolf is going to convince a young person to rape his or her dog or try to pick up real wolves. And I certainly don’t think that reading the novelization of Blue Lagoon will be the trigger to brothers and sisters getting it on.

There are people with said tendencies or urges, and that’s what we all want to prevent. So maybe we need to focus on the education and the honesty to talk, write and do something about those problems.

Let me know what you think.


  1. Hey there. I do have to agree with you, even though I don't write about it, or read it, I have no right to choose for another person what they want to read or write.
    Censorship never works. If you want to stop something, educate people. Saying you can't have it makes most of us want it. We are such defiant creatures, aren't we?

  2. Perhaps if people (and I mean smashwords) began to use companies like IMG Direct or Paymate then Pay pal might get off it's high horse. Most people don't want to read about such deviant practices, but where will it end?

    1. That's the issue. Did you ever notice how vague the censors' language is about defining what constitutes banned language? It's impossible, so it become subjective, at some point.

      And when it's subjective, then it becomes arbitrary. Someone has to make a decision: leave this out or leave it in. Sooner or later, someone is going to take exception to what YOU write.

  3. I agree this is censorship and Paypal users need to make some noise about this.

  4. I don't think censorship makes any sense. Even the Bible has been banned at times, but millions of people see it as a holy book. Even Alice in Wonderland was banned! It's completely arbitrary as you pointed out.

  5. The thing that gets me is that I can still use my Paypal account to buy other forms of media with the same content (in any context). So, what exactly will this accomplish for them aside from pissing off authors?

    My debut novel has rape, and allusions to past rape in it. It's very integral to the plot and character development so it's not exactly going anywhere. Later on the topic of incest will also come up. No bestiality but you know, if we're going to What the Heck town, not all of my characters are human (humanoid, but not human-human) and procreate all the time with humans. Whoops!

    I can't really see this holding for a long time. But I guess we'll see.

  6. This is just outrageous. Just imagine someone with a brick and mortar bookstore hearing this from their brick and mortar bank. They would switch to another bank in a heartbeat. There are more payment providers for online payments. Why doesn't smashwords switch?

    There is one other side to this too. A book by a rape survivor would be banned as well, where is the logic in that?

  7. I don't much like Paypal but I feel a bit sorry for them on this one. Seems the real bad guys here are the financial institutions. At the end of the day, the books they are trying to ban are legal books being sold in a legal manner. What happens when someone joins the board of one of these institutions who disapproves of underage drinking? Or sex outside of marriage? Or women workers? Or single dads? They wouldn't ban such content. Would they?

  8. I wrote my own post on the subject and came down along the same lines as you. But after reading more about it, I'm really torn on the issue.

    I fully believe that businesses should have the option of choosing who they want to do business with. If PayPal doesn't want to do business with Smashwords--for any reason--they have the right to terminate the business relationship, cries of censorship notwithstanding.

    One thing I wonder though; can Smashwords find another payment processing company that isn't subject to the same underlying problem? If the financial networks are at the core of this problem and they are making it impossible for any business anywhere to sell the offending material, they are taking advantage of a monopoly position to restrict legal trade. Now THAT I have a problem with.

  9. Looks like problem solved, Scott. I tweeted you the Smashwords link.

  10. Shaun Poore2:17 PM

    Ridiculous - the problem isn't the censorship but rather someone's mind conceived of creating this kind of product. Sad state the individual must be in.