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Perhaps feeling a bit stung by the storm of criticism brought down by its decision to insist e-book sellers pull specific types of erotica, PayPal’s Director of Communications Anuj Nayar posted an explanation on the company’s blog, explaining that unlike a number of other payment services, it does allow its service to be used for erotica in general.

Nayar insisted that “PayPal is a strong and consistent supporter of openness on the Internet, freedom of expression, independent publishing and eBook marketplaces.” However, it didn’t want to allow itself to be used for the more extreme sorts of erotica because these categories often include images, and can also blur the line between fiction and non-fiction.

The reason PayPal insisted on these types of erotica being pulled was due to the legal and business risks associated with them, not out of their personal views on the content or a desire to limit free speech. Nayar also pointed out that, as it is a business that provides a service, “the right to use PayPal is not the same as the right to speak.”

National Coalition Against Censorship Executive Director Joan Bertin has posted a response to PayPal’s explanation, noting that the company is already protected against responsibility for illegal goods in its user agreement. “IF PayPal were ever charged with processing a payment for something illegal, they would surely deny responsibility and say that the buyers and sellers are solely responsible.” But even with that being the case, the kind of content being sold by these stores was not, itself, illegal.

Then there’s this peculiar statement: “This type of content also sometimes intentionally blurs the line between fiction and non-fiction.”  So what?  Why would non-fiction be more objectionable than fiction? Besides, how can they possibly divine the author’s intent?

I actually think I understand what PayPal is getting at here. They don’t want people selling autobiographical stuff talking about the things they’ve actually done, or “how-to” guides like the pedophile guide that nut self-published on Amazon a couple of years ago—things that could be seen as promoting illegal acts in real life rather than fantasy.

Bertin’s response also notes that Smashwords’s books don’t even include images—but if images were the problem, why not tailor the policy directly to them, rather than all books in the category with or without images? (Though that being said, images are still expressive art and shouldn’t be forbidden either.)

Most telling is PayPal’s refusal to address the real problem – which is that the policy, no matter what its basis or motivation, has the effect of shutting down sales of legally-protected expression.

All the protestations about the commitment to free expression ring hollow in the face of its actions.

And that’s really the heart of the matter. Sure, you may not have the right to use PayPal for payment, and PayPal’s restriction isn’t “censorship” in its purest sense—that is, the government forbidding these forms of speech. But by being the only game in town and forbidding these forms of erotica, PayPal is preventing legally-protected free expression from being sold as effectively as any government censorship ever could.

It also strikes me that this is another example of the double-standard we have in our society: violence is always much more acceptable than sex. Just as movies are always rated much more harshly on sexual content than on violence, PayPal’s restriction means that I could write a book about a serial killer and describe his every murder in graphic, sickening detail, and that would be just fine to publish and sell (as long as the murderer wasn’t also a rapist, anyway)—but I can’t publish a story about two people who love each other if they happen to be step-parent and step-child.

What kind of sense does that make?

Meanwhile, the EFF has put together an email-writing campaign to get PayPal to rescind its restrictions. It’s unclear whether it will have any effect—especially since it adheres to the traditional “slacktivism” pattern of getting people to send an email rather than trying to convince them to write a real physical letter. But maybe every little bit will help. (Found via TechDirt.)

 
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