Tell PayPal: Stop the Digital Book Bonfire
Free speech isn't so free when booksellers have to choose between hosting legitimate content and earning a living. Unfortunately, PayPal is threatening to stop doing business with several online booksellers, significantly impacting their revenue in the process, unless the booksellers agree to stop providing content that is perfectly legal but violates PayPal's policy. Please join us and tell PayPal to stop throwing books on a digital bonfire.
The ACLU of California has joined a coalition of civil liberties groups, booksellers and authors, and other organizations and individuals who care about free speech in calling on PayPal to stop this practice and encourage rather than suppress the distribution of content. We've written an open letter to PayPal explaining our position, which is copied below.
Please join the effort to safeguard online free speech by sending an email to PayPal telling it to reverse its policy of punishing authors, publishers, and booksellers who create and distribute legitimate content. Your voices can remind PayPal that protecting free speech everywhere is good for business.
Here's a copy of our open letter to PayPal:
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
Association of American Publishers
Bytes for All, Pakistan
Comic Book Legal Defense Fund
Coming Together, charity publisher
Electronic Frontier Foundation
Feminists for Free Expression
Index on Censorship
National Coalition Against Censorship
Northern California Independent Booksellers Association
Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association
PEN American Center
Southern California Independent Booksellers Association
Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance
Woodhull Sexual Freedom Alliance
Chris Conley is the Technology and Civil Liberties Fellow with the ACLU of Northern California.