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Content sanitized for whose protection?

By Mark Gibbs
March 16, 2012 04:39 PM ET

Network World - It's a fascinating aspect of modern culture that even as we gain ever greater access to information, news and entertainment there are puritanical groups in our society who repeatedly attempt to push us back to some better, nicer, safer, prudish and, in many ways, more ignorant society. And the villain in the quest to "clean up Dodge" is not always who it might appear to be.

By way of example, consider the following saga: In mid-February PayPal contacted online e-book retailers to warn them it in one week the company would begin enforcing a new policy that prohibited the sale of certain forms of erotica.

TECH ARGUMENT: E-books vs. print books

One of the companies affected by the new PayPal policy was Smashwords, a tremendously successful publisher of e-books created by independent authors and publishers. The company makes it possible for anyone to digitally publish and distribute e-books to leading retailers, including Apple, Barnes & Noble, Sony and Kobo, and its catalog contains a huge range of topics of which erotica is but one small section.

Specifically, PayPal was banning works of fiction ... note that's fiction as in "made up" and "not real" ... that described "bestiality, rape-for-titillation, incest and underage erotica" from being paid for through PayPal services.

While it might sound reasonable to ban such distasteful topics there are two big problems with PayPal's demands that the Internet community has reacted strongly to: The first problem is that of definition. Which works of erotica are acceptable and which are not? Secondly, PayPal is asking for Smashwords to stop selling works that are not, in fact, illegal. The works may be considered immoral, unethical, vulgar, crude, or however you see them, but they are legal to create, offer for sale, sell and buy.

What this all boils down to is a problem with free speech. Sure, PayPal is a private business and, as such, can choose the terms under which it will do business with anyone. Unfortunately, when you're as big as PayPal, what you do has a far more profound impact on society.

Here's how Mark Coker, Smashwords CEO, explained PayPal's demands on its blog:

"On Saturday, February 18, PayPal's enforcement division contacted Smashwords with an ultimatum. As with the other ebook retailers affected by this enforcement, PayPal gave us only a few days to achieve compliance otherwise they threatened to deactivate our PayPal services. I've had multiple conversations with PayPal over the last several days to better understand their requirements. Their team has been helpful, forthcoming and supportive of the Smashwords mission. ... Although they have tried their best to delineate their policies, gray areas remain."

Originally published on Click here to read the original story.
Reprinted with permission from Story copyright 2012 Network World, Inc. All rights reserved.
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