PayPal Backtracks on Censorship Move

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On Tuesday, PayPal retracted its threat to close the accounts of online booksellers that sell works including descriptions of rape, incest, and bestiality.

“This decision recognizes the important principle that neither PayPal nor any other company involved in payment processing has any business telling people what they should read,” said Joan Bertin, executive director of the National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC). The coalition had joined the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression (ABFFE) in writing a protest letter to eBay, the owner of PayPal.

“It is an important victory for free speech on the Internet,” ABFFE President Chris Finan said.

In mid-February, PayPal delivered an ultimatum to online booksellers and distributors, including Smashwords,, and eXcessica, which gave them just days to remove all erotic books describing rape, incest, and bestiality from their online stores. More than 1,000 e-books were removed from the Smashwords website before PayPal agreed to postpone a final decision on cutting off payments.

NCAC and ABFFE also joined with the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) to post a joint online statement, which attracted co-signers from more than 30 organizations representing authors, publishers, booksellers, and free speech defenders. A grassroots petition calling on PayPal to reverse the policy nearly doubled its goal of 1,000 signatures, and at least as many e-mails were sent to PayPal’s general counsel in support of the statement by ABFFE, EFF, and NCAC, the groups reported. 

In a statement posted on its website on Tuesday, PayPal announced that in the future it will not reject e-books that consist only of text unless they “contain child pornography, or … text and obscene images of rape, bestiality, or incest (as defined by the U.S. legal standard for obscenity...).” It promised to limit its objections to particular books rather than rejecting “entire ‘classes.’”  It also said that it is developing a process that will allow an author to challenge a PayPal notice that a book violates its policy.

ABFFE and NCAC noted, however, that the PayPal statement does not fully resolve all issues. It is not clear whether legal material would be affected by PayPal’s policy regarding “e-books that contain child pornography,” some of which may be legal, the groups said in a statement. Nor is it clear how PayPal proposes to focus “on individual books,” rather than classes of books, since it would be impossible to individually screen all e-books bought and sold online.

“It is too early to conclude that PayPal has completely abandoned the idea of policing the content of books purchased online,” Bertin said. “We hope so but won’t know until the company releases a formal policy. We have to see how it is enforced.”