Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The Spin Starts Here

PayPal has finally responded to criticism of its censorship threats. Anuj Nayar, director of communications at PayPal, was in full spin control on the PayPal blog"There’s been some chatter about PayPal’s decision to not allow the sale of certain “erotica” content using our service," Nayar says. Chatter? More like outrage. Don't you love it when spinmeisters attempt to minimize their critics?

He continues: "Here are the facts... PayPal is a strong and consistent supporter of openness on the Internet, freedom of expression, independent publishing and eBook marketplaces." Whoa, hold it right there, partner! A fact is a true statement. If that were true, there wouldn't be any controversy, would there? You can't be a censor and claim to support free expression in the same breath.

Nayar claims "an important factor" in PayPal's decision to threaten to drop customers who sell certain books is "that this category of eBooks often includes images." Now, let's put aside for the moment that images are also a form of expression, and also ignore the fact that few modern novels are actually illustrated, and ask even if 3% are illustrated, and even if a portion of these images are objectionable to Mr. Nayar, does that justify censoring the remaining 97% of books in these categories?

He goes on to argue: "This type of content also sometimes intentionally blurs the line between fiction and non-fiction." I have trouble with this statement. Fiction is make-believe and nonfiction is reality. Most of us can tell the difference. One category Nayar objects to is rape. Does that mean PayPal will censor fiction like Alice Sebold's best seller "The Lovely Bones"? Or will it censor an author's true account of her rape published as nonfiction?

Mr. Nayar states: "Some feedback we’re getting is a belief that PayPal is forcing its moral beliefs on others and restricting people’s right to free speech. We can tell you with 100 percent conviction that this is not our intention." I'm sorry, Mr. Nayar, but when you set yourselves up as censors, based on your own standards of what readers should or should not be allowed to read, that is EXACTLY what you are doing. You can't hide it with spin.

"PayPal is a payments company. The right to use PayPal’s service is not the same as the right to speak." Ah, the truth begins to slip through his lips. PayPal, is a subsidiary of eBay, a public company, and it may attempt to repress speech. But at least be honest about doing so.

Nayar claims PayPal is "protecting PayPal from the brand", that is, presumably the taint of the merchandise purchased through PayPal. But you can't have it both ways, Mr. Nayar. PayPal cannot be a payments company and "protect its brand". VISA is a payments company. If one uses his VISA card to order a risqué DVD, throw a bachelor party at a strip club, or rent a hotel room for an evening of debauchery, VISA does not worry these charges are tarnishing its brand. Payment companies are content-neutral. Banks don't inquire how you earned your money before they let you deposit it. When you pass judgment on what people buy or sell, you can no longer shield yourself by claiming to be a payment company. You've crossed a line. When you tell readers what they can't read, booksellers what books they can't sell, and writers what they can't write, you've crossed a much more important line. And as a writer, and one who cares a great deal about free expression, I'm calling you on it.

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