PayPal Back Pedals: Excuse Me if I Don’t Celebrate

March 26, 2012

This post originally appeared March 13, 2012 on 4-Letter Words.

canstockphoto3416317-e1331683754308I never liked PayPal. The idea of an unregulated corporation having access to all my personal, financial information made me nervous. But when a number of publishers and retailers give you no choice about getting paid except via PayPal, you sign up.

Whenever I had an alternative, I used it. I opened a bank account where I can deposit cheques in pounds sterling and I have an account that allows me to accept checks made out to my pen name.

I still ended up with seven PayPal accounts for various enterprises I manage, including one for I.G. Frederick and one for Pussy Cat Press.

I first learned trouble was brewing for erotica authors and publishers back in August when Essemoh Teepee reported to the Erotica Authors Association (EAA) list that: “The Religious Right owners of the PayPal service have just decided that I am a pornographer and the spawn of Hell. They have shut down my business account so I cannot sell my stories or audios using their service from my website.” In a followup email, he added: “it appears they have what they call a ‘Protector of the Brand’, somewhat like the Mediaeval ‘Defender of the Faith’ perhaps? If they take a look at what you do and they don’t like it, they freeze your account and all your money for 180 days before kicking you out. There is no appeal once they have put you to the sword.”

Other authors immediately reported they had suffered similar experiences. I noticed that most of the authors who had had their PayPal accounts shut down always seemed to have had large sums of money in their accounts when this happened, money which PayPal confiscated. One author I met at the EAA conference in Las Vegas later tweeted that everything he had was in his PayPal account when it was shut down and he didn’t even have money to pay his rent.

Of course, authors expressed outrage that PayPal could do this and urged those who had their money stolen to file lawsuits. But, when I researched the PayPal Terms of Service (which you must agree to before you sign up) I found:

“You may not use the PayPal service for activities that … relate to transactions involving … certain sexually oriented materials or services …”

AND, in a completely separate document:

“If PayPal, in its sole discretion, believes that you may have engaged in any Restricted Activities … We may close, suspend, or limit your access to your Account or the PayPal Services (such as limiting … your ability to send money, make withdrawals …”

AND:

“If you violate the PayPal Acceptable Use Policy, then in addition to the above actions you will be liable to PayPal for the amount of PayPal’s damages caused by your violation of the Acceptable Use Policy. You acknowledge and agree that $2,500.00 USD per violation of the Acceptable Use Policy is presently a reasonable minimum estimate of PayPal’s actual damages … PayPal may deduct such damages directly from any existing Balance in the offending Account, or any other Account you control.”

I’m not a lawyer, but if you put those paragraphs (from different documents and different sections of documents) together it’s obvious that PayPal has given itself the ability to legally steal confiscate people’s money for arbitrary reasons. They’ve also made it extremely unlikely that anyone would discover that they could do so until it was too late. After all, how many people thoroughly read the very long, often difficult to comprehend TOS, EULA, privacy policies, etc. that they accept with a click of their mouse every time they sign up for a new website?

Personally, I took what precautions I could (and I warned anyone who would listen). I made a point of immediately transferring any funds I received into my bank account rather than leave them there for possible future purposes and again I went out of my way to avoid using PayPal. Sometimes, as with Smashwords, that meant waiting until my royalties built up to a certain point. (Of course, that option is only available to U.S. authors/publishers with U.S. addresses and tax ID numbers. And, currently, unless you’ve published 100 books, Smashwords is the only option for getting your books listed for sale on Ebook Eros.)

When all this first came to my attention, I was considering setting up a shopping cart for my website since I’m now self publishing much of my work. I asked my submissive and webmaster, Patrick, to research alternatives to PayPal. He learned that every other merchant services option either had similar Terms of Service regarding the sale of “adult” material or they charged ridiculous amounts of money for the privilege of using their service to collect funds. I gave up on that idea and continued to sell books and short stories via various retailers, giving up 30 percent or more of what readers paid.

I didn’t really notice what happened with Bookstrand. I was incredibly busy at that time. I didn’t have books for sale there, and I didn’t even realize they had provided an opportunity for indie authors to sell their work.

But, on Feb. 20, I received an e-mail, sent to all publishers, from the Chief Operations Officer of All Romance. The e-mail purported to be about AR’s decision to separate Erotica from Erotic Romance. Now, I back that decision. I think it’s important to label our work so readers don’t accidentally purchase material they find offensive.

As much as I believe I should have the right to write and sell anything that anyone else will buy, I also strongly respect the right of any reader to draw a line that they don’t wish to cross in their reading experience. What I will not accept is any person moving that line for anyone else. No one should be permitted to force someone to read what they find offensive, but they shouldn’t be able to prevent anyone else from reading that same material just because they don’t like it.

The AR e-mail also stated: “Please review section 7 of the publisher contract” with a warning that: “If the amended terms are ones you can’t abide by … [we] will accept your notice of termination. …We request that you take immediate initiative to remove any titles that may be in breach.”

After reading section 7, I wrote an e-mail asking:

“I have a question about the amended terms. They state ‘Erotic Works which contain … scenes of non-consensual bondage or non-consensual sado-masochistic practices’ are ‘restricted.’

“My question is does this include questionable consent or consensual non-consent?

“I also would like to know why are you working to eliminate thought-provoking fiction which is not illegal?”

The response I got did not mention PayPal and instead discussed the vision for AR versus the type of stories independent authors and publishers were selling on their site.

However, I was told that I must “inactivate” both Broken and Shattered because they contain “questionable consent.” (I wrote about this in detail as part of Eden Connor’s excellent series by banned authors.)

Four days after the initial e-mail from AR, I received the now infamous letter from Mark Coker of Smashwords.

Ironically, when the first discussion about PayPal erupted on the EAA list last summer, one contributor noted that he had brought his concerns about PayPal to Coker’s attention and was assured: “They’re committed to protecting the rights of erotic authors (within legal bounds of course) and they use PayPal and haven’t had any trouble.”

After receiving the February Smashwords letter, I spent several hours changing keyword tags for my stories, which will reduce my sales since the people looking for transgessive stories won’t be able to find them. I also removed some promotional material that hadn’t been accepted for the premium catalog rather than provide an excuse to boot me and my stories.

Mark Coker put the blame for PayPal’s decisions on the credit card companies. He based that on e-mail from PayPal stating: “Our banking partners and credit card associations have taken a very strict stance on this subject matter.” However, an author reported to the EAA list that reliable sources inside Visa and MasterCard denied any culpability.

In letters responding to inquiries from Banned Writers, Visa and MasterCard have very publicly denied that they had any involvement in PayPal’s decision not to accept transactions for legal fiction.

In a response to what it dismissed as “chatter,” PayPal’s director of communications posted a statement full of misrepresentations, allusions, and lies. In it, he made no mention of credit cards or financial partners. (Alessia Brio does an excellent job of ripping PayPal’s ludicrous statement to shreds.)

Because of the uproar, I suspect many didn’t have time to read the “Amendment to the PayPal User Agreement” effective April 01, 2012 which account holders were notified about during this time.

“You authorize PayPal, directly or through third parties, to make any inquiries we consider necessary to validate your identity. This may include asking you for further information, requiring you to provide your date of birth, a taxpayer identification number and other information that will allow us to reasonably identify you, requiring you to take steps to confirm ownership of your email address or financial instruments, ordering a credit report, or verifying your Information against third party databases or through other sources. We may also ask to see your driver’s license or other identifying documents at any time. If you use certain PayPal Services federal law requires that PayPal verify some of your Information. PayPal reserves the right to close, suspend, or limit access to your Account and/or the PayPal Services in the event we are unable to obtain or verify this Information.”

PayPal also amended their “privacy” policies (but you would have to read the entire policy to see what’s changed). Orwell was wrong. The government isn’t Big Brother, the corporations are.

When I started publicly ranting about PayPal’s latest bullying, I was chastised on Twitter by a friend, Mick Luvbight, for coming ” late to the party.” He reminded me that “PayPal has been denying its service to us pornographers for 10 years.”

Countless authors have lost hundreds of dollars in sales because of an arbitrary decision by a corporate bully. At least one publisher reportedly will close its doors at the end of the month. (Although there’s no mention of this on its website, at least two of its authors have blogged about its demise.)

Numerous authors have blogged about the outrageous bullying and the impact it will have on reader choice. Many of us have joined Banned Writers, a coalition of writers, readers, publishers, and editors fighting against economic censorship of erotic fiction started by Remittance Girl.

In addition to hosting a compelling series of interviews with and essays by banned authors on her blog, Eden Connor has also put out a call for transgressive erotica. Erotic Tales of Transgression will collect, in defiance of corporate morality police, stories that examine the gritty truth of human sexuality.

Significantly, the rest of the Internet didn’t dismiss this issue as a problem only for “smut” writers. Although they condescendingly deny that they would ever write or read this type of fiction, many recognize the slippery slope. The issue has been covered in the mainstream press and by tech bloggers. Forbes wrote “Credit Card Companies Should Process Payments Not Censor Content.”

Organizations such as ACLU and Electronic Frontier Foundation have set up petitions telling PayPal not to ”censor” books.

However, I don’t believe petitions will do the job. Although we’ve all been ranting about censorship, in reality PayPal is not preventing books from being written. If what PayPal is doing is illegal, it would come under restraint of trade. (And, given our current government interest in allowing corporations unfettered permission to abuse consumers, I’m not expecting to see any action taken.)

Instead, I urge anyone concerned about this corporate bullying to close their PayPal and eBay accounts. (I’ve closed all seven of mine and stated why in the comments.) Let merchants who only accept PayPal know why you will no longer shop with them. Money talks.

And, apparently PayPal listened. On March 12, in an update on Smashwords, Mark Coker stated: “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.”

On March 13, to great cheering across the Interwebs, PayPal announced a clarification of “exactly how we are going to implement the policy,” stating ”First and foremost, we are going to focus this policy only on e-books that contain potentially illegal images, not e-books that are limited to just text.”

When was the last time you read an erotica e-book that contained images other than the cover and the author’s photo?

Excuse me if I don’t celebrate. PayPal is backpedalling because it got caught trying to prevent the sale of legal fiction. Many authors have lost days protesting this, days they could have spent writing fiction. My e-books are no longer visible on All Romance ebooks unless you log in. I learned Monday that another publisher has stopped selling independent e-books, allegedly because of a logistics issue, but I have to wonder.

Just as this incident didn’t begin in February, it won’t end in March unless we’re vigilant about protecting our rights to buy and sell what we choose to read and write. What we need more than anything else right now is an alternative to PayPal.

UPDATE: On March 20, Selena Kitt made it clear in her post Corporate Bullies that PayPal has in fact NOT changed anything and is still censoring legal erotica. Read her post, then close your PayPal account.


Dirty Mind vs. Debit Card: My Anger Inspired Me

March 20, 2012

This post originally appeared March 8 on Eden Connor’s “Dirty Mind vs. Debit Card:” series.

Many years ago I corresponded at length with a young man who was seeking an owner. Although we decided we weren’t suitable for each other, we grew quite close during the exchange of numerous e-mails and telephone calls.

The young man, who had multiple mental diagnoses, had been introduced to BDSM several years earlier by his therapist. She enslaved him and kept him in what’s known as a 24/7 TPE (Total Power Exchange) relationship. She whipped him, used him sexually, and kept him a prisoner in her house. Although he believes he consented to this relationship, under such circumstances he would have been unable to give informed, legitimate consent.

To compound the woman’s abhorrent, unethical relationship with this boy, she abandoned him after two years, releasing him to flounder on his own in the vanilla world.

I have kept a slave in a consensual Total Power Exchange relationship in the past. Someone in this type of relationship can’t make the leap to individual independence without some transitional time and assistance. The young man was given neither. And, this is a young man who already had difficulty functioning in the world at large because of the severe problems that had sent him to seek therapy in the first place.

I was horrified. But, as much as I tried, I couldn’t convince the young man that this woman had abused him.

My anger inspired me to write a novel. Unlike real life, readers require that fiction make sense. I tried to imagine how anyone could perpetuate such horrific torture on another human being. In a desperate attempt not to write a one-dimensional villain, I ended up with an additional novel.

Although I originally tried to market them as one book, in reality they needed to be two. At the suggestion of the books’ original publisher, I split them. Originally, the combined book was called Broken. Searching for a title for the second book, my TPE slave, who was in service to me at the time, suggested Shattered.

And, so the protagonist in Broken is the antagonist in Shattered. Both books are works of fiction. However, I know first hand that what Zachary suffers in Shattered is all too close to the truth. My beta reader was a friend who had studied for his doctorate in psychology. He had first hand experience of the environment I had chosen to explain how Jessica could abuse Zachary to the extent that she did. I found it disconcerting that he thought Broken very believable, given his own experience.

These novels are not romances. They’re cautionary tales about abuse and the meaning of consent. (In Broken Jessica consents to enslavement by her professor when he threatens to expel her from the university and blacklist her.) I know some readers find them arousing. Others have found them revolting. But, my intention was that readers find them thought provoking and that has indeed been the case.

One reader of both books wrote: “The longer the books gestate in my mind, they give me some things to think about in my own life, as well as stirring me physically.

“I.G. touches upon darkness that many of us hold within ourselves and the inner core that can be broken and rebuilt. She brought out the things that we will do and go through in order to achieve our life goals.”

One reviewer, Brenda Thatcher, Co-Owner of Mystique Books,  wrote of Shattered: “If art is meant to disturb, to reach out and touch an individual on a visceral level, then I.G. Frederick did so for this reader. Not an easy accomplishment, for I have layers of scars over those wounds. Read SHATTERED if you’ve a lion’s heart. Live it if you dare.”

I found it amusing that another reviewer wrote: “This book only generated negative emotions for me – fury, disgust, loathing and sorrow,” without ever understanding that those were the emotions I wanted my readers to experience.

Broken and Shattered are in my opinion and that of others, important books. They show how BDSM can be used to justify abuse (something that happens too often in the real world). The revolted reviewer wrote: “Jessica’s understanding of BDSM is so perverted and twisted, it pisses me off.” That was precisely my point.

I have read too many blog posts from women who have been raped by a play partner who ignored their limits (one is too many, but I’ve read far more than that). The slave who titled Shattered had been the victim of not one, but two abusers who masqueraded as dominants and pretended to offer him the Master/slave relationship he craved.

A Master/slave relationship can be a beautiful symbiosis that exceeds vanilla couplings in intimacy and intensity. But, four times I have sheltered, literally or figuratively, someone escaping an abusive and parasitic relationship that was supposed to be symbiotic.

You ask about sales. These books haven’t sold a huge number of copies. One of the reasons is that they are not written to be erotic as in “sexually arousing.” They are more mainstream literary works with graphic sex and S&M than what people think of as erotica. But, I don’t want someone to pick up one of my books to read without knowing what they’re getting into.

One of the great things Nyla Alisia of  Pussy Cat Press did as part of creating fabulous new covers for the books was label them: “A Disturbing Erotic Novel” and “A Deeply Disturbing Erotic Novel.” No one should pick one up expecting a romance.

Last week, I was required to make Broken and Shattered, “inactive” on All Romance ebooks. I intend to fight that decision because although the consent in both is “questionable,” they do not contain non-consensual sex or non-consensual S&M. (Note, both books were reinstated, but they’re now hidden unless you’re logged in as are most of my short story collections on that site.)

It shouldn’t matter.

I’m also concerned that I’ll be required to remove Dommemoir. It’s a romance, but it does include  watersports and I’ve seen reports that that is making the censorship lists of some publishers/retailers. My cover designer, Nyla Alisia,  has said that reading Dommemoir “changed my life forever” and came up with the tagline: “WARNING: This book will change women’s perspective on relationship dynamics forever.”

Ashley Lister wrote in a review on Erotica Readers & Writers Association that “Dommemoir is a well-written story of sexual expression triumphing over sexual repression and a brand of true love that could only ever be experienced within the restrictions of a BDSM relationship. For those who are already familiar with this lifestyle, Dommemoir should prove a telling tale where readers can recognise their own experiences and preconceptions as they are met and managed. For those who don’t know the lifestyle but are curious to learn more, Dommemoir will give a fascinating insight to unimagined possibilities.”

I also expect to have trouble with my next book, Playing With Dolls, which I intend to release later this month, because it also contains questionable consent.

I spent too much time last week (time I could have spent writing or prepping for a class I’m teaching) changing many of the keyword tags on Smashwords. Those would be the ones that make it possible for people who like what I write to find my stories.

I will have to re-title and possibly rewrite “Jail Bait” (a story I had planned to publish this week) not because it includes “underage” sex, but because the male waits until midnight on the female’s 18th birthday to initiate sex. Is that long enough under the circumstances? Is the fact that she wants sex with him before that arbitrary date/time, but he insists on waiting make my story “obscene”?

I object to having my work censored, pre- or post-publication. I admit that many of my short stories, often originally written for men’s magazines, are pure wank-off material, but I see nothing wrong with that.

However, some of my short stories and all of my novels are written to make readers think. They’re inspired by ugly things I see in this world. Playing with Dolls, for example, was motivated by a letter to an advice columnist in which the writer complained that her friend was going to marry an “obviously” gay man — obvious, according to her, because he was effeminate. My letter to that columnist which refuted the friend’s concerns based on the possibility that the couple she was concerned about might be in a FemDom/sissy boy relationship was ignored.

I know lots of effeminate males. Ninety percent are straight and most of the other 10 percent are bisexual. I also know many gay males. Most of them are about as macho as a guy can be. You’re not likely to find a more butch male than a gay leatherman. Unlike macho straight guys, a gay leatherman has absolutely no exposure to anything female in his personal life. But our society insists on equating “feminine male” with “gay.”

I got nailed by one of my beta readers because the m/m sex scenes weren’t erotic. Given that they’re written from the point of view of someone who doesn’t like gay sex, well, duh. I won’t look for a publisher for Playing With Dolls because it’s such an unusual book. It’s a coming of age story about someone who’s been kicked so hard by societal misconceptions (including his own parents) that he ends up in abusive BDSM relationships. Transgressive, yes. Best seller, not likely. Censor target, I’m sure it will be.

There’s something wrong with a country in which children are routinely abused by their parents and their priests and no one does anything about it, while our educational system produces people who only know how to take tests and are unable to think critically, and our infrastructure is crumbling around us. But we waste resources censoring books that might make a reader uncomfortable.

I should have the right to write and sell anything that anyone else will buy.

I also strongly respect the right of any reader to draw a line that they don’t wish to cross in their reading experience. But, I will fight any person who tries to move that line for anyone else. No one should be permitted to force someone to read what they finds offensive, but that reader shouldn’t be able to prevent anyone else from reading that same material just because they don’t like it.

Any author who believes this censorship doesn’t apply to them because they don’t write erotica or anything “squicky,” needs to look up the poem attributed to Pastor Martin Niemöller about the Holocaust and those who didn’t speak up until it was too late. I also urge them to remember that almost half the top 100 novels of the 20th century have been targeted by book banners including: The Great Gatsby, The Catcher in the Rye, The Grapes of Wrath, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Color Purple, James Joyce’s Ulysses, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, The Lord of the Flies, Orwell’s 1984, and, of course, Nabokov’s Lolita.

The first amendment to the U.S. Constitution prevents government from “abridging the freedom of speech.” But, corporations (who currently own the government) can arbitrarily decide what can and can’t be sold on their sites or what work we can pay for or receive payment from through their systems. Today PayPal won’t allow pseudo-bestiality or pseudo-incest. Tomorrow they can ban any works they choose. I’m guessing LGBT relationships will be the next target.

Don’t think that will happen? Were you paying attention three years ago when Amazon removed all LGBT books and authors from its search engine?  Some of those books STILL have not had their visibility restored.

When you search for “homosexuality in books” on Amazon you STILL get: A Parent’s Guide to Preventing Homosexuality, 101 Frequently Asked Questions About Homosexuality, and Coming Out of Homosexuality: New Freedom for Men and Women in the top ten — all books based on the fabricated theory that the bible says homosexuality is an “abomination.” If you change the list to “most popular” you won’t find any of those books. People are NOT buying the books Amazon claims are most relevant, but those are the books Amazon delivers to your screen when you search for that word.

If you care about the fact that corporations are deciding what you can and can’t read, there are things you can do:

  1. close your PayPal and eBay accounts and tell them why you’re doing so (money talks)
  2. tell retailers who only accept payment via PayPal why you won’t buy from them
  3. don’t buy books from Amazon unless you can’t find them anywhere else.
  4. tell all your friends/fans to do the same.