UPDATE (3/13/12): After public pressure, PayPal has revised their policy for censoring publishers of erotic ebooks. We are pleased with the new, speech-friendly policy. See our press release, PayPal's statement, and a statement from the National Coalition Against Censorship.
EFF and a coalition of civil liberties organizations and publishers is calling on PayPal to reverse a policy that shuts off payment services to publishers of certain forms of erotic literature. Under the policy, PayPal has threatened to shut down the accounts of online publisher Smashwords and others, unless they eliminate erotica featuring incest, rape, and bestiality. As scholars and booksellers can attest, these are themes prevalent in many forms of literature, from Grecian myths to the Bible. EFF joined ACLU of California, American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression, Authors Guild, National Coalition Against Censorship, and others in sending a joint letter to PayPal condemning this policy as contrary to free speech.
Unfortunately, this is not the first time we’ve seen a payment services provider interfering with access to lawful speech. As we saw when Mastercard, Visa, and PayPal created a financial blockade against the whistleblower website WikiLeaks, financial service providers are an important part of the chain of intermediaries upon which online communication depends. When even one of those intermediaries caves to pressure or takes on a censorial role, our rights to read and speak freely are jeopardized. We need to send a signal to all back-end service providers that they have no business interfering with the distribution of lawful content.
As the National Coalition Against Censorship and the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression explained in a recent public letter:
The policy positions PayPal as contemporary exponent of its own Index Librorum Prohibitorum. The Catholic Church’s Index of Prohibited Books, like the Hays code in the film industry, has long since lost favor with the American public, and there is no reason to think that they would welcome PayPal in a similar role. The commitment to free speech is firmly embedded in our society, legally and culturally.
And as the ACLU of Northern California explained in their statement against this form of censorship, "Free speech isn't so free when booksellers have to choose between hosting legitimate content and earning a living."
If you are an individual, you can use the EFF action center to sign on to our letter to PayPal. And if you are an organization that would like to join our campaign against this form of censorship, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Text of Coalition Letter
PayPal, which plays a dominant role in processing online sales, has taken full advantage of the vast and open nature of the Internet for commercial purposes, but is now holding free speech hostage by clamping down on sales of certain types of erotica. As organizations and individuals concerned with intellectual and artistic freedom and a free Internet, we strongly object to PayPal functioning as an enforcer of public morality and inhibiting the right to buy and sell constitutionally protected material.
Recently, PayPal gave online publishers and booksellers, including Book Strand, Smashwords, and eXcessica, an ultimatum: it would close their accounts and refuse to process all payments unless they removed erotic books containing descriptions of rape, incest, and bestiality. The result would severely restrict the public's access to a wide range of legal material, could drive some companies out of business and deprive some authors of their livelihood.
Financial services providers should be neutral when it comes to lawful online speech. PayPal’s policy underscores how vulnerable such speech can be and how important it is to stand up and protect it.
The topics PayPal would ban have been depicted in world literature since Sophocles’ Oedipus and Ovid’s Metamorphoses. And while the books currently affected may not appear to be in the same league, many works ultimately recognized for their literary, historical, and artistic worth were reviled when first published. Books like Ulysses and Lady Chatterley’s Lover were banned as “obscene” in the United States because of their sexual content. The works of Marquis de Sade, which include descriptions of incest, torture, and rape, were considered scandalous when written, although his importance in the history of literature and political and social philosophy is now widely acknowledged.
The Internet has become an international public commons, like an enormous town square, where ideas can be freely aired, exchanged, and criticized. That will change if private companies, which are under no legal obligation to respect free speech rights, are able to use their economic clout to dictate what people should read, write, and think.
PayPal, and the myriad other payment processors that support essential links in the free speech chain between authors and audiences, should not operate as morality police.
ACLU of California
American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression
American Society of Journalists and Authors
Association of American Publishers
Association of American University Presses
Bill of Rights Defense Committee
Bytes for All, Pakistan
Comic Book Legal Defense Fund
Coming Together, charity publisher
Electronic Frontier Foundation
Feminists for Free Expression
Fight for the Future
Great Lakes Independent Booksellers Association
Independent Book Publishers Assn.
Index on Censorship
National Coalition Against Censorship
New Atlantic Independent Booksellers Association
New England Independent Booksellers Association
Northern California Independent Booksellers Association
Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association
PEN American Center
Reporters Without Borders
Southern California Independent Booksellers Association
Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance
Tunisian Association for Digital Freedom
Unlimited Publishing LLC
Woodhull Sexual Freedom Alliance