The Good News
Banned Writers just posted that PayPal has reversed its earlier decision to prohibit all content with controversial themes in it. This is extremely good news. Smashwords has a site update about it as well:
March 12, 2012 – PayPal update: I met with PayPal this afternoon at their office in San Jose. They will soon announce revised content policies that I expect will please the Smashwords community. Effective immediately, we are returning our Terms of Service to back to its pre-February 24 state. Beyond that, our friends at PayPal have asked me to hold off sharing additional details until they’ve had a chance to finalize their new policies. Thank you for your patience and support during this crazy last few weeks.
I’m excited that Smashwords is reverting its ToS to pre-February 24th terms and that Mark Coker actually went and visited PayPal’s headquarters to speak with them off the record about the impact of their decision, only to discover that they were, in fact, going to back down. I’m breathing a sigh of relief that one of the future imprints at my author collective will be able to publish dark literary erotica without limiting its offerings only to Amazon and B&N or encouraging me or anyone else to self-censor any more than we already subconsciously do. I’m glad that I no longer feel completely ethically obligated to shut down my eBay side business in order to take a stand (not that I make much money there anymore anyway).
Do I feel secure? Do I have any assurances that this issue won’t rear its ugly head again at a later date, when a company thinks no one will be paying attention?
…And the Bad
1. Our allies are each other, some other genre writers, and our readers. Self-publishers on the whole are not willing to stick their necks out for us, and certainly most independent distributors won’t unless they think they can win the argument.
In my previous post on the specious arguments critics made against taking a stand on erotica censorship, I explored, among several issues, why it behooves us to be vocal on issues that only affect us indirectly in the beginning. (I can’t believe I just used the word “behoove.” Wow.) There was a not-so-brief explanation of why I find the so-called free-market worship running rampant among self-publishers both annoying and unhelpful. The post also went on to dissect and repudiate many of the arguments that those outside of the kinkier erotica subgenres were clinging to as excuses for not speaking out against PayPal.
One of the more ironic parts in all of this was that some of the more rabid free-market advocates were excoriating erotica writers for blaming PayPal instead of the credit card companies, or instead of themselves. Then we found out from Visa that Visa, for its part, denied putting ANY pressure on PayPal to crack down on erotica.
Basically, it was as I and many others suspected: PayPal was instituting this policy for reasons unknown, entirely independent of the cc companies. This brings me to another important point to be made:
2. We still have no idea what started this whole imbroglio. No idea whatsoever.
Now we know what Visa didn’t do. We still have no idea how it or any other credit card company decides which kinds of entertainment merit higher handling fees, or if the banks are exerting pressure on them or PayPal, or what the heck’s going on on their end.
PayPal decided to impose censorship on its own. Fine. What do we make of all of the alternative payment processors who supposedly told Selena Kitt “NO” when she asked if they would process payments for the kind of erotica that was going to be banned by PayPal? If Visa thinks the default is “all fiction is fiction and therefore legal in the U.S.,” why did Kitt run into a unified wall of resistance to processing payments for her banned books?
While I can see some of these processors erring on the side of legal caution if they operate out of foreign countries, it is unlikely that ALL of them are foreign-owned or operated entities. Some payments processors still exist that cater to h@rdcore adult films. So what gives?
[I had a section here on the shifting definition of erotica, but that's another post for another day.]
Yes, You DO Make Waves
Whatever your feelings on censorship and business practice, most would agree this is a good day for independent authors and small business owners alike. Due to the nature of corporate bureaucracy, it is rare for any large company to reverse a decision like this. It isn’t the only time this has happened, though — witness the Netflix/Quikster fiasco last year and Bank of America’s reversal on debit card fees. The backlashes on Twitter and Facebook were swift and brutal. SOPA/PIPA are effectively dead because of massive protests on social media.
This was the same process on a smaller scale. Social media activity gave the movement the critical mass it needed to reach the ears of people who command respect and fear from corporations.
Let me excerpt a quote from Mark Coker’s latest email to Smashwords authors (emphasis mine):
Smashwords authors, publishers and customers mobilized. You made telephone calls, wrote emails and letters, started and signed petitions, blogged, tweeted, Facebooked and drove the conversation. You made the difference. Without you, no one would have paid attention. I would also like to thank the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), The American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression (ABFFE) and the National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC). These three advocacy groups were the first to stand up for our authors, publishers and customers. Their contribution cannot be overstated. We collaborated with them to build a coalition of like-minded organizations to support our mutual cause. Special kudos to Rainey Reitman of EFF for her energy, enthusiasm and leadership.
I would also like to thank all the bloggers and journalists out there who helped carry our story forward by lending their platforms to get the story out. Special thanks to TechCrunch, Slashdot, TechDirt, The Independent (UK), Reuters, Publishers Weekly, Dow Jones, The Digital Reader, CNET, Forbes, GalleyCat & EbookNewser and dozens of others too numerous to mention.
In order for organizations and blogs with large readerships and general news crossover to notice an issue in the first place, THERE HAS TO BE NOISE. That’s why I so vehemently disagreed with Sarah Hoyt, Kris Rusch, and others in my last post: signal boosting — tweeting and reblogging and facebook posting — does make a difference.
Not to harp on Kris Rusch (and whoever is sending her nasty emails rather than disagreeing with her publicly in a respectful manner, seriously, you need to STOP, that shit is Not Cool), but when she says this:
“Rather than shouting on various blogs, Mark Coker and others took action. And they won. This is how it’s done, folks. It’s a textbook example of fighting a bad business decision with a strong business-oriented response.”
I have to re-iterate, that action is a reaction to the outcry. First, as another commenter stated and Rusch admits, much of the “action” taken beyond simply calling out the corporate censorship came from the writers themselves. The letter back from Visa, which provided Coker and everyone else with a challenge from Visa to PayPal — business to business, no less — on the credulity of PayPal’s claims of outside pressure. Second, all of that “noise” that has received undeserved scorn was the reason news blogs and free speech advocates and privacy advocates noticed the problem in the first place and undertook direct “action.”
Set aside social justice definitions of “direct action.” We’ll call the tweeting and blogging and facebook posting indirect action. This indirect action either led people in the larger, more respected institutions to either notice the issue themselves or cause someone else to notify them. The end result is the same.
But let’s play devil’s advocate for a second.
Even if I were to view all of the “noise” in the blogosphere and social media networks as unprofessional and a waste of time when concerned with direct communication with PayPal et al., it bolsters your position significantly when you can point to a large amount of consumer and client interest in the outcome of a dispute. I personally don’t sign internet petitions, because they’re rarely verifiable, and I don’t want to give out my personal info on them. However, they can be decent gauges of public interest in a cause. The personal outcries, however, are far more important.
Furthermore, as a business person, I employ marketing techniques to reach the most people and at least expose them to my products if not influence them to buy my products. The more people who click on my links, the more people will buy my products and the more people will talk about my products.
What tools do we use in this new digital word to cheaply reach vast numbers of people and spread our message? Social media. It’s about exposure, persuasion, and amplification.
As a business person, I want a favorable outcome in this dispute. Therefore, I use social media to reach large groups of people and to influence them, or to persuade them to amplify my opinion into speaking out.
The only difference here is I am substituting opinions for products.
Yes, this is always a higher-risk proposition that simply marketing a product that may be imperfect, because ideas are usually more controversial than products. However, as long as you are informed on the subject, you are empowered to make a difference. Give waves enough time and space on the ocean, and they will become tidal waves.
In this case, “noise” was more than just noise. It was a demand for respect and a fair shot. Noise tipped the scales. Noise was power.
You did make a difference.
I think that’s a good message to take away from all of this.