Stop Book Censorship by Financial Institutions

I normally try to avoid getting involved in political or religious discussions, but over the past two weeks, an issue that hits a little too close to home arose in the publishing world: book censorship.

It started when PayPal demanded that Smashwords stop selling erotica that features incest, bestiality, or rape. If Smashwords failed to comply, their PayPal account would be shut down. Worse, they were given a very short deadline. On Monday, February 27, Smashwords sent a letter to their authors asking them to voluntarily remove any of the offending material by the end of the week.

Here’s a recent update on the problem from Mark Coker, if you want more background:

   Smashwords Update on Erotica Censorship

Naturally, authors were outraged. Many misguided souls raged at Smashwords, who is as much a victim in this as we are. Others raged at PayPal, who as it turns out, is actually enforcing the mandates of financial institutions and credit card companies. The real source of the problem goes deep into the financial network that fuels Internet sales.

Some suggested that Smashwords ditch PayPal and use another payment processor. That suggestion is not only impractical, it’s pointless. The problem goes way deeper than PayPal.

What we need is for all authors and readers to tell our financial institutions to stay out of the publishing business. The affected titles are legal: Legal to write, and legal to read. Legality should be the only issue of concern to the financial network.

By censoring legal books, our financial institutions are forcing their moral assessment of reading material on every author and reader in the country. Do you want some bank telling you what you can and can’t read? I sure don’t! The affected books aren’t the type of reading material I prefer, but I’m willing to defend the right of others to write and read them. Financial institutions have absolutely no business setting up a virtual book burning.

Mark’s update referenced above gives links to specific places where you can express your displeasure. But I encourage you to blog about this issue and take a stand as well. Even if you don’t read any of the affected material, surely you can see how arbitrary and subjective the criteria are for determining what books are being banned and which are not. The only valid criterion for restricting the publishing trade should be the legality of the transaction. There is nothing illegal about these transactions, so Mr. Banker, keep your morals out of my reading options.


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  1. In the Hunger Games books, Katniss was told to remember who the enemy was. The initial reaction is to rage against the enemy we see — but really that person is several steps removed from the source and, in turn, raging against the enemy they see. I enjoyed how you following the stream of censorship back to the source.

  2. Thank you for striking at the heart of the issue. It’s not entirely PayPal’s fault (although frankly I mistrust them a lot and I only do business with them because there really isn’t a strong alternative yet, although I do have high hopes for Dwolla), as you say, but instead it’s something endemic to our financial processing network. I’m not sure why banks think it’s their job to police legal activity for things they find distasteful.

    I don’t understand this whole "my morals should be your morals" thing that a lot of influential people seem to keep stoking. They seem to honestly believe that things used to be better, that somehow things that ‘offend’ their sensibilities haven’t always existed and will always continue to exist, no matter how hard you try to stop them. Sure, the Internet’s brought them out of the shadows, but you could argue that as a *good* thing. Honestly, it means it’s much less likely for someone to get hurt.

  3. I’ve read about this on another blog and intend to pass the message on. As you say, it’s important that everybody makes their views known, and we fight back at the right people.

  4. Ava, Chris, and Sarah: Thank you for visiting and offering your comments. The issue is unlikely to get resolved to our satisfaction, but it’s worth clarifying the role of the players so we know exactly who we should fight.

    I know one writer who says we are using the term censorship improperly because the credit card companies are just making a business decision. If they don’t want their business associated with the sale of certain types of erotica, they have to right to refuse to do business with any organization that sells that kind of material.

    While I agree with that assessment in principle, there is no practical alternative to doing business with the credit card companies if you sell your books online. That means the credit card companies effectively have a monopoly on Internet transaction processing. My feeling is that enjoying that monopoly position comes with a certain degree of responsibility to the market. They should not be able to arbitrarily refuse to process legal transactions. For one thing, I don’t think the transactions do reflect on their business. When you buy something online, you are not buying it from VISA, you are buying it from a retailer. The retailer is the one with a reputation to maintain. The credit card company is nothing but a generic money pipeline.

  5. Credit cards….the mark of the beast.