News that PayPal, one of the world’s biggest on-line banks, plans to stop processing payments for books it doesn’t like has shocked me. Yes, shocked!

I rarely venture into controversy. No, truly! I meant no mischief by my recent suggestion here that Shakespeare’s name was a trade mark and that his birth name was Ned Turd. It brought me so much erudite hate mail (‘Yo aint fit to lic Shakspears boots, son’) that I pledged not to do it again.

But when infamy stalks the land, no honest citizen can stay his pen.

Infamy? PayPal has just told web site owners to stop selling ebooks that contain ‘rape, incest, bestiality and under-age sex content’. Otherwise, PayPal will withdraw its services from that site. PayPal’s first target was Smashwords. As Smashwords’ founder Mark Coker says, its ultimatum is impossible. Smashwords cannot switch to another on-line bank, nor can it vet every ebook on its site, a total of four billion words.

No villains in this tale. (Truly.)

Coker is at pains to point out that PayPal is not the villain in this tale. Privately, the good folk at PayPal seem to be embarrassed by the whole silly business. But PayPal has been pressured by its partners, vaguely termed ‘banks and credit card companies’. Didn’t Winston Smith meet these people? They are the faceless, unaccountable and unnamed ‘They’.

‘They’ is probably a mask for one rich Pharisee with a well-founded sense of guilt and powerful friends. He (it can only be a man) has cherry-picked solely those vices that are rooted in the Judeo-Christian doctrine of ‘sin’.

I hasten to point out that I personally deplore rape, incest, bestiality and under-age sex (though some of my best friends are textual deviates). Suffice to say, if ‘They’ are not quickly laughed back to the Middle Ages, it will be impossible to sell almost any classic work of fiction on a site that uses PayPal.

Whither Lolita (paedophilia) or Tom Jones (incest) or Tess of the d’Urbervilles (intimations of rape) or Black Beauty (with its sub-text of bestiality)? Indeed, what of Heinlein’s later sci-fi novels? His Stranger In a Strange Land lampoons - and depicts graphically - every taboo in western culture.

Whither the Bible itself? (Lots of titillating stuff in the Bible...)

How could such a fiat be enforced? Even if a web site owner tried to read every book in his catalogue, what criteria should he impose? (When does bodice-ripping become rape? How would a Prudery Filter cope with our popular English saying: ‘Well, love a duck!’?) Must all of us who use PayPal on our web sites resort to the Ayatollah Khomeini Gambit and issue a fatwa against everything that is rumoured to be wicked?

There goes all of western culture.

I thought the censorship debate had been exhaustively explored in 1960 with the collapse of the Lady Chatterley’s Lover trial. Do we really need to reprise it, half a century later?

Alas, ‘tis no joke. PayPal’s acquiescence to ‘They’ is a major threat to our livelihoods as writers.

We should remind PayPal - along with the banks and credit card companies - that they are merely a utility, like sewerage services. We have granted them no mandate to wear the mantle of Oliver Cromwell. His edicts ruined England. And his head ended up on a stake.

‘They’ would do well to remember that.

To read more about the PayPal censorship furore, see:
https://www.smashwords.com/press/release/30 

Postscript: In a victory for authors and commonsense, PayPal has today (14th March 2012) reversed its policy of banning books it doesn't like. My heartfelt thanks to everyone who wrote to PayPal, signed petitions and otherwise expressed their disgust at this latter-day bid at book burning. See Smashwords' announcement here:
http://blog.smashwords.com/2012/03/paypal-revises-policies-to-allow-legal.html