Saturday, March 03, 2012

A Call To Arms: Freedom of Speech

I received this e-mail update from Smashwords this morning. For those of you unfamiliar with Smashwords, it is a website that formats and distributes electronic books to sites such as Barnes & Noble, Amazon, and iBookstore. Favored by self-published authors, it is coming under fire. Not an author? Skip to the bottom of this post to see why this is relevant to readers as well.

PAYPAL CENSORSHIP UPDATE
________________________________________

In case you haven't heard, about two weeks ago, PayPal contacted Smashwords and gave us a surprise ultimatum: Remove all titles containing bestiality, rape or incest, otherwise they threatened to deactivate our PayPal account. We engaged them in discussions and on Monday they gave us a temporary reprieve as we continue to work in good faith to find a suitable solution.

PayPal tells us that their crackdown is necessary so that they can remain in compliance with the requirements of the banks and credit card associations (likely Visa, MasterCard, Discover, American Express, though they didn't mention them by name).

Last Friday, I sent the following email to our erotica authors and publishers: https://www.smashwords.com/press/release/27 Then on Monday, I issued an update, and announced we would delay enforcement of PayPal's guidelines so we and PayPal could continue our discussions: https://www.smashwords.com/press/release/28

THE PROBLEM:

PayPal is asking us to censor legal fiction. Regardless of how one views topics of rape, bestiality and incest, these topics are pervasive in mainstream fiction. We believe this crackdown is really targeting erotica writers. This is unfair, and it marks a slippery slope. We don't want credit card companies or financial institutions telling our authors what they can write and what readers can read. Fiction is fantasy. It's not real. It's legal.

THE SOLUTION:

There's no easy solution. Legally, PayPal and the credit card companies probably have the right to decide how their services are used. Unfortunately, since they're the moneyrunners, they control the oxygen that feeds digital commerce.

Many Smashwords authors have suggested we find a different payment processor. That's not a good long term solution, because if credit card companies are behind this, they'll eventually force crackdowns elsewhere. PayPal works well for us. In addition to running all credit card processing at the Smashwords.com store,
PayPal is how we pay all our authors outside the U.S. My conversations with PayPal are ongoing and have been productive, yet I have no illusion that the road ahead will be simple, or that the outcome will be favorable.

BUILDING A COALITION OF SUPPORT:

Independent advocacy groups are considering taking on the PayPal censorship case. I'm supporting the development of this loose-knit coalition of like-minded groups who believe that censorship of legal fiction should not be allowed. We will grow the coalition. Each group will have its own voice and tactics I'm working with them because we share a common cause to protect books from censorship. Earlier
today I had conversations with the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), The American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression (ABFFE) and the National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC). I briefed them on the Smashwords/PayPal situation, explained the adverse affect this crackdown will have on some of our authors and customers, and shared my intention to continue working with PayPal in a positive manner to move the discussion forward.

The EFF blogged about the issue a few days ago:
https://www.eff.org/deeplinks/2012/02/legal-censorship-paypal-makes-habit-deciding-what-users-can-read
Today, ABFFE and NCAC issued a press release:
http://www.scribd.com/doc/83549049/NCAC-ABFFE-Letter-To-PayPal-eBay-re-Ebook-Refusal-2012

I will not be on the streets with torch in hand calling for PayPal's head, but I will encourage interested parties to get involved and speak their piece. This is where you come in...

HOW YOU CAN HELP:

Although erotica authors are being targeted, this is an issue that should concern all indie authors. It affects indies disproportionately because indies are the ones pushing the boundaries of fiction. Indies are the ones out there publishing without the (fading) protective patina of a "traditional publisher" to lend them legitimacy. We indies only have each other.

Several Smashwords authors have contacted me to stress that this censorship affects women disproportionately. Women write a lot of the erotica, and they're also the primary consumers of erotica. They're also the primary consumers of mainstream romance, which could also come under threat if PayPal and the credit card companies were to overly enforce their too-broad and too-nebulous obsenity clauses (I think
this is unlikely, but at the same time, why would dubious consent be okay in mainstream romance but not okay in erotica? If your write paranormal, can your were-creatures not get it on with one another, or is that bestiality? The insanity needs to stop here. These are not questions an author, publisher or distributor of legal fiction should have to answer.).

All writers and their readers should stand up and voice their opposition to financial services companies censoring books. Authors should have the freedom to publish legal fiction, and readers should have the freedom to read what they want.

These corporations need to hear from you. Pick up the phone and call them. Email them. Start petitions. Sign petitions. Blog your opposition to censorship. Encourage your readers to do the same. Pass the word among your social networks. Contact your favorite bloggers and encourage them to follow this story. Contact your local newspaper and offer to let them interview you so they can hear a local author's perspective on this story of international significance. If you have connections to mainstream media, encourage them to pick up on the story. Encourage them to call the credit card companies and pose this simple question, "PayPal says they're trying to enforce the policies of credit card companies. Why are
you censoring legal fiction?"

Below are links to the companies waiting to hear from you. Click the link and you'll find their phone numbers, executive names and postal mailing addresses. Be polite, respectful and professional, and encourage your friends and followers to do the same. Let them know you want them out of the business of censoring legal fiction.

Tell the credit card companies you want them to give PayPal permission to sell your ebooks without censorship or discrimination. Let them know that PayPal's policies are out of step with the major online ebook retailers who already accept your books as they are. Address your calls, emails (if you can find the email) and paper letters (yes paper!) to the executives. Post open letters to them on your blog, then tweet and Facebook hyperlinks to your letters. Force the credit card companies to join the discussion about censorship. And yes, express your feelings and opinions to PayPal as well. Don't scream at them. Ask them to work on your behalf to protect you and your readers from censorship. Tell them how their proposed censorship will harm you and your fellow writers.

Visa | American Express | MasterCard | Discover Ebay (owns PayPal)

While they are appealing to the authors, I would like to appeal to the readers among us. If you call for the removal of books containing bestiality, rape, or incest, you question the validity of such works as Julie of the Wolves (rape), I Am Regina (attempted rape), The Rape of Nanking, any work referencing the Greek Pantheon (Zeus and Hera were siblings, remember?), and Piers' Anthony's Xanth series (those half-breeds had to come from somewhere, folks). The point is that as taboo as these subjects may be, they are also a part of life, both real and imaginary, and the ways in which they are used may tickle our fancy, or push us to moral outrage on the behalf of protagonists male and female.

If you don't speak up, you are passively allowing censorship to occur. Remember the scene from Nat Hentoff's The Day They Came To Arrest The Book? The school principal began ripping out portions of the Bible because they contained references to incest, abuse of women, etc. 'Nuff said.

You don't need a soapbox upon which to stand, nor a pulpit from which to preach—just drop another thirty-second e-mail to one of the companies listed above, and get on with your day. Feeling a bit more outrage than that? Spread the sentiment online and in your community. Make yourself heard. Be passionate, be bold, and above all, be thoughtful: remember the principles for which you fight.

Thank you for joining the worldwide community of readers and writers in this cause.

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