Thursday, March 29, 2012

Smashwords pushes back against censorship

Image courtesy Kofegeek
 Kudos to Smashwords and its head, Mark Coker, for pushing back against censorship

A couple of weeks ago, I posted a column about how Paypal was forcing e-book retailers like Smashwords to remove e-books whose content it found objectionable. If any e-book seller was found to be selling books with content about rape, incest, underage sexuality and bestiality, Paypal would deactivate its account.

This amounts to censorship—the restriction of content. And because of Paypal’s size and dominance of the online payments market, it had the potential to enforce it.

At the time, Smashwords President Mark Coker explained that he managed to get Paypal to grant a “temporary reprieve as we continue to work in good faith to find a suitable solution.”

On March 13, Mark Coker announced through Smashwords’ online newsletter that “PayPal today announced plans to revise their content policies to allow Smashwords writers full freedom to publish and sell legal ebooks....

“This is a victory for all writers and readers. It removes credit card companies, banks and payment processors from the business of censoring legal fiction.

I agree with Paypal’s stated aversion to the kind of material it listed. But outright banning of books that meet the criteria of “including” rape, incest, underage sexuality and bestiality is a blunt instrument. By that token, my book may be banned, as it contains frank description of sexual activity by people who would today be considered “underage”—but who were, in the time the book is set, of marriageable age. Other works that fall into that description would include not just Lolita, but also Romeo and Juliet, Gone with the Wind and The Return of Martin Guerre.

And as I said in my blog post of March 6, while rape, incest, bestiality and underage sexuality may be problems, censorship is not the cure. All it does is limit the freedom of legitimate artists, writers and readers, while forcing the truly objectionable material that celebrates these acts further underground.

Coker attributed the turnaround to thousands of independent authors who made phone calls, wrote letters, emails and blogs and otherwise raised the issue in the world.

Interestingly, I did not hear anything about Amazon’s response to this. Did they face the same pressure? Maybe they’re just too big to worry about pressure from Paypal. But from banks? Unimaginable. Smashwords, as a much smaller company, had far less ability to push back, yet did so gracefully and successfully.

So, congratulations, Mr. Coker, and Paypal, too. But let’s not get complacent.

Where did this latest attempt to limit free speech come from? According to Paypal, the pressure came from banks, credit card companies and others in the financial industry. But that sector is not known for its morality—so who or what was behind the effort?

We should all thank and esteem Mr. Coker for his astute handling of the issue and a real victory for freedom of expression, but at the same time, we need to stay on guard against the next time some faceless organization tries to limit our freedoms.

This issue has not gone away. All writers, fiction or non-fiction, secular or belonging to any faith, political or not, along with all creative people, as well as anyone who values their freedom to choose the art material for themselves—we all must not stay quiet the next time censorship comes cloaked as “decency” or “protecting the most vulnerable.”

And don’t fall into the trap of saying “I don’t read that kind of stuff, so it doesn’t affect me.” Because if those four subjects get banned today, then tomorrow there will be four more that someone finds objectionable.

Don’t think it can’t happen. It’s happened before. And while censorship does not work, it sure leads to misery for a lot of people.

Remember samizdat?


  1. People just need to grow up. I can understand paypal not wanting to endorse this sort of thing. But censoring it is not gonna help at all.

  2. It is, indeed, a slippery slope, and can certainly happen again. We dodged a bullet this time, thank God.

  3. I'm with you, I'm wondering who was really behind all this. Banks are not well known for the moral stances they take.

  4. Anonymous2:37 PM

    I was unaware of this issue with PayPal. However, I think something that I haven't heard mentioned is that every "inclusion" of a topic isn't necessarily bad.

    For instance, what about a self-help or resource book for victims of rape? That "includes" discussion of rape, I'm sure, but certainly is a laudable thing to put out there (assuming it's any good).

    What PayPal proposed was a VERY blunt instrument indeed.

  5. Anonymous2:38 PM

    Well, I think it deleted my comment (technoblip).

    The gist was that it was a VERY blunt instrument they proposed. It would have banned, for instance, a book of resources to help rape victims. After all, how could you have a book like that without including the concept of rape at some point?

    I was not aware of this bit of news at all. Thanks for posting on it.