Monday, March 5, 2012

The Book Police (mildly NSFW)

I've been waiting to weigh on this in the hope that I could get more clarification and understanding of who, exactly, is to blame.

A couple of weeks ago Paypal informed online book distributor Smashwords, which provides e-book distribution to thousands of self publishers, that if they did not remove books containing rape for titillation, bestiality or incest, including so-called pseudo-incest (sex with a step relative) from their catalog, they would stop processing all of their payments. This included books being offered for free. Smashwords would have to recode their entire site to use a different payment provider. Apparently the same ultimatum was also delivered to Bookstrand. Initially, Paypal gave Smashwords an untenable deadline of only a few days to comply.

When Smashwords fought, Paypal blamed...the credit card companies. They are claiming that the credit card companies want to censor what adults are allowed to buy and read.

Pornography is protected speech under the First Amendment. Obscenity is not, however, and the standards for what constitutes obscenity remain an uncertain grey area. It is not Paypal (or the credit card company's) job to police this area. Unfortunately, as they are not the government, their censorship efforts do not violate the constitution.

I rely on Paypal's processing to handle most of my income, and they provide a very valuable service. And I am not dismissing the possibility that this may indeed come from the credit card companies. Unfortunately, that is even more frightening. The credit card companies may be realizing that they can dictate what we buy. Today, it's fringe erotica. Tomorrow, it might be GLBT fiction. Or guns. It might be books that only deal with 'difficult' themes - Lolita, Robert A. Heinlein's To Sail Beyond The Sunset, The Lovely Bones...we all have our own list. Oh yes, what about Mark Twain? Lots of people want him censored for using the n word.

If Mastercard, Visa, Discover and American Express all decide nobody should buy something, then it will become all but impossible to buy that item. And the frightening thing is that there is very little any of us can do about it. In today's world, anyone who travels, anyone who runs a business, anyone who ever rents a car needs a credit card. There is no choice.

I don't know what's really behind all of this, but I do know that as much as I personally don't want to read the banned material, this is a slippery slope at the bottom of which lies a world in which all entertainment has to be suitable for your six year old.

Does anyone really want to live in that world?