As I write these words, somewhere on the Internet someone is comparing a business decision made by Smashwords (a digital publishing enterprise) to the Holocaust.
Most likely this is being done through the use of Martin Niemöller’s oft quoted, “First they came for….”
Smashwords for the two percent of the American population who haven’t yet self-published a book, publishes and distributes e-books. It works like this: Manuscripts are submitted as Word documents by publishers or directly by authors. They are put through Smashwords’ “meat grinder” where they are converted into various e-book formats pdf, epub, mobi etc. They are then available for sale on the Smashwords’ site. If they conform to the formatting guidelines and the author/publisher chooses, they can be made available to the various e-bookstores including Barnes & Noble, Amazon Kindle and Apple’s I-Bookstore. Amazon and Barnes & Noble allow authors and publishers to upload directly, so many self-publishers bypass Smashwords and go straight to those venues.
On February 24th, Mark Coker, the President of Smashwords sent an email out to all writers and publishers of works labeled “erotica” which included the following message:
“Today we are modifying our Terms of Service to clarify our policies regarding erotic fiction that contains bestiality, rape and incest. If you write in any of these categories, please carefully read the instructions below and remove such content from Smashwords. If you don’t write in these categories, you can disregard this message.
PayPal is requiring Smashwords to immediately begin removing the above-mentioned categories of books. Please review your title(s) and proactively remove and archive such works if you are affected.”
Coker explained in his email that this change is due to an ultimatum given to him by PayPal, which will stop transacting his sales on Monday (2/27) if the change isn’t made. He stated that PayPal is demanding that erotica featuring sex with underage youth or children be taken off as well, but that was already off-limits under Smashwords’ terms of service, so that part doesn’t represent a change. He asked authors to pull their own offending work in order to avoid further crackdowns.
This of course has led to a shitstorm of controversy on the Internet including the Holocaust comparisons and lots of talk about “censorship,” “free speech” and “constitutional rights.”
First, let’s get something straight. Nobody’s “rights” are being violated. Smashwords is a private company that has every right to create and enforce whatever terms of service it wants. They could change their policy and decide to only publish children’s books, to demand evidence of proofreading, or even to make their authors pass a grammar and literacy test — something for which many readers would be thankful.
While there may be some writers of a specific type of erotica who have come to depend on Smashwords for distribution, and they will now be shit out of luck, that’s not the same as being forbidden to write, beaten or carted off to jail for doing so. I don’t think Amnesty International is ready to get involved just yet.
Coker’s capitulation to PayPal isn’t chilling because it will lead to jack-booted thugs coming to take us away, or even because it will deprive readers of easy, cheap access to their preferred flavors. It’s chilling because it’s a reminder that freedom of the press, even in the digital age, belongs, as it always has, to those who own one. Anyone is now free to publish on the web, but distribution is the key. Platforms like YouTube allow the possibility of going viral. Your cat could be a star. Amazon’s Kindle Digital Platform has evened the playing field and allowed for the emergence of writers rejected by major publishers. Without search engines like Google, your words and images might never be discovered. Beyond that, Twitter, Facebook and other social media offer us a new world, a world where everyone is always watching everything, where the revolution will not be televised, because television is no longer relevant, but it will be broadcast — live-streamed and viral. The web has enhanced our sense of “freedom,” our sense of living in a world of infinite possibility. But none of these platforms were invented solely for the sake of “freedom.” All of them were created as businesses to make money. All of them are free to set their own standards.
But that shouldn’t even be a concern as long as there is a market for freedom. I’m not particularly worried about Youtube changing its rules because I’m confident that a “new” similar service will emerge to fill a need, should that happen. The real danger would be if too much web-power became concentrated in just a few hands.
What’s frightening here is the enormity of Paypal’s ability to control the web. They’ve pulled their weight and their rank before, most notoriously when they kept Wikileaks from accepting donations through them. PayPal could close Smashwords down bit by bit if they chose to, first demanding that Smashwords eliminate certain categories of erotica, then all erotica, then all books with offensive language, then all books. PayPal could do this because of moral concerns, legal concerns, or because its parent company, E-Bay has decided to go into the e-publishing business, maybe even start its own erotica line. PayPal cannot prevent authors from “publishing” their work on the Internet or even disseminating it, but they can effectively eliminate even donations coming in to support distribution.
There are petitions on the web asking PayPal to change its policy on Smashwords. It’s ludicrous to think these petitions will gain much traction. PayPal was wise to go after the categories they did first. Very few people are willing to stand up for bestiality. Besides, PayPal is simply too big to boycott, too ubiquitous. Even when you aren’t paying through PayPal directly, they are often the conduit.
The question is not what kind of Smashwords do we want or what kind of PayPal do we want. The question is what kind of web do we want and what forms of action will get us there.
The answer to the first part for most of us is that we want a web where goods and ideas can be freely exchanged, an even playing field for small and start up businesses as well as a place with platforms to publicize injustice and call people to action.
As for what forms of action get us there, it starts with the idea that absolute power corrupts, and that it is best, therefore, that no one group or company control the web, especially its commerce.
We can’t change PayPal. At least, I don’t think we can. Maybe some great legal expert can set me straight on that. Maybe it effectively has a monopoly and needs to be split up. Meantime, we can try as much as possible to use and support alternatives to it. This is the new consumerism. It’s about bringing your ethics to the marketplace whether it’s buying local produce, green flooring or choosing not to buy from companies you know use child labor. It’s about voting with your wallet.
I’m not ready to close my PayPal account. For some things, it may still be the only game in town, but I can choose alternatives for my own “merchant services.” And maybe some competitor will seize this opportunity to present itself as an alternative, a company only interested in taking our money and not in judging our tastes. (Maybe even a company committed to not being evil.)
I’m not pulling my books from Smashwords, though God knows if PayPal checked out the content, they might pull them for me, but I am hoping that Mark Coker is working on setting up alternatives and not waiting around for the next shoe to drop.
Meantime it does no one any good to start shouting that they have the right to yell fire in a crowded theater. They never did. They never had the right to yell anything in a theater, unless they owned it, though for one brief shining moment maybe they thought they owned the Internet.