PayPal Showing Signs of Censorship Once Again

Is PayPal up to old tricks? Despite agreeing to lift a ban on serving publishers of erotic works earlier this year, author Amelia C. Gormley says the company refused to process payment on her commissioned book cover.

Gormley recently blogged about the experience: After sending payment to artist Kerry Chin for a commissioned cover illustration, PayPal sent Chin a notice on November 8, informing Chin that after a review of her account, the account would be “permanently limited.” Chin was locked out of her account and unable to review transactions. It has been reported and confirmed by Gormley that PayPal has since restored the account.

In response to reports that the trouble with PayPal could be over copyright, Gormley wrote another blog showing more of the message PayPal sent to Chin. The message appears to confirm that PayPal suspended the account for imagery they found objectionable, and Chin and Gormley further confirmed this by identifying which transactions were flagged. Two of the transactions were for the cover to Gormley’s erotic novel Acceleration. The cover features two men engaged in mild sexual activity, but shows nothing more than the top of one man’s buttocks. The other man is mostly clothed. Chin corroborated the information on Gormley’s blog with emails and screenshots of her PayPal account. Chin said PayPal restored her account shortly after the story appeared on The Digital Reader.

PayPal has refused payments and locked users out of their accounts due to a policy forbidding erotic content in the past. CBLDF and other free speech organizations joined forces to protest this censorship policy, which threatened erotica e-book publisher Smashwords. One such organization was the National Coalition Against Censorship, which argued against many of the points in PayPal’s policy. After widespread protest, PayPal rescinded its overly-broad threat to suspend the accounts of e-book publishers that release erotic material featuring incest, pseudo-incest, rape fantasies, bestiality (including non-human fantasy characters). PayPal has narrowed its policy to focus on child pornography and obscene imagery. (PayPal talks about their policy on “sexually oriented goods and services” here.)

Like all private companies, PayPal has a right to set its own policies. In this case, however, PayPal’s move to block Chin’s account seems like an overreaction. Chin says that she will continue to use PayPal, but that “when it comes to transactions related to my freelance work, I am looking for alternatives.”

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Michael Fitzgerald has worked in the comic book industry at Fantagraphics Books, Inc. and Wizard Entertainment. He currently works as a journalist in Tacoma, Wash.