Last week we sent a complaint to PayPal about its policy to shut down accounts of online merchants who sell erotica containing descriptions of rape, incest, and bestiality. Many other organizations have since registered their concerns over the policy.  Today, PayPal posted a response on its blog.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t say much.  It refers to “brand, regulatory and compliance risk associated with this type of content,” but doesn’t explain what those vague references mean. All PayPal does is process payments.  It already holds users “independently responsible for complying with all applicable laws in all of your actions related to your use of PayPal’s services, regardless of the purpose of the use.”  IF PayPal were ever charged with processing a payment for something illegal, they would surely deny responsibility and say that the buyers and sellers are solely responsible.

Besides, we’re not talking about illegal content.

Then there’s this peculiar statement: “This type of content also sometimes intentionally blurs the line between fiction and non-fiction.”  So what?  Why would non-fiction be more objectionable than fiction? Besides, how can they possibly divine the author’s intent?

Finally, there’s the comment that “this category of eBooks often includes images.”  The largest eBook distributor, Smashwords, says its erotica do not contain images.  But if images were the problem, why not direct the policy to them?  Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not suggesting that would be any more acceptable than targeting textual material.  Images are also protected expression, and, like erotic books, erotic art has existed throughout history and is a respectable and respected subject for artistic exploration. For example, John Currin’s highly erotic and provocative art has received critical acclaim and been shown in museums around the world.

PayPal’s post is also interesting in what it doesn’t mention: credit card companies and banks.  In its previous statements, the company consistently defended its actions on the ground that “the credit card companies made us do it.”

Most telling is PayPal’s refusal to address the real problem – which is that the policy, no matter what its basis or motivation, has the effect of shutting down sales of legally-protected expression.

All the protestations about the commitment to free expression ring hollow in the face of its actions.