We value free speech in the our country. The First Amendment has a hallowed place in our homes next to apple pie a la mode and our parents. When anything threatens our family or our favorite dessert, we react vigorously. The same goes for our civil and political rights.
Now we see attempts to erode those rights not through overt acts of censorship, but through backdoor methods where the government does not even acknowledge its actions. It uses its ability to regulate financial institutions to control what people can publish. It knows it cannot attack First Amendment rights head on, so it figures out sneaky methods to accomplish the same ends.
News about the latest example of this kind of censorship comes via Mark Coker, head of Smashwords and advocate for independent authors and publishers. Authors use Smashwords to publish and distribute ebooks through all the various channels that have developed during the last few years. PayPal is the platform’s primary payment processor. PayPal instructed Smashwords to remove certain kinds of content from its site, or lose its business relationship with PayPal. For details, see Mark Coker’s updates on the issue at the Smashwords press room.
Now, why would a payment processor care about the content of the books available at Smashwords? The fact is, it doesn’t. PayPal says it must comply with rules that credit card companies and banks have promulgated. Banks and credit card companies don’t care about ebook content any more than PayPal does. The people who care about ebook content are public servants, paid to protect First Amendment rights, who use their regulatory authority over financial institutions to take away those rights. Essentially, they arrogate to themselves the role of morality police, and use their regulatory authority to control ebook content by whatever means they can find.
The invisible moralists for Smashwords are not payment processors. The moralists are people who regulate the payment processors. When PayPal refers to compliance with existing rules, they do not refer to rules that PayPal, credit card companies, or banks make themselves. PayPal refers to rules that grow out of new post-crash legislation designed to stipulate what banks and payment processors can and cannot do. In the uncertain, clamp-down atmosphere that Dodd-Frank created, payment processors do not care to take chances. They do not want to provoke displeasure in their federal masters.
To take another example of First Amendment rights under attack, government used its tight grip on payment processors to shut down Wikileaks in 2010. The technique worked extremely well. In just a few days, it strangled off the flow of donations to Wikileaks. It threatened companies who process those donations, and they immediately buckled. The whole operation took about two weeks. Now regulators look around to find other groups they can strangle. Authors who write about immoral acts look like good targets. Few stood up for Wikileaks when so-called patriots urged that Julian Assange be prosecuted as a traitor and a spy. The government counts on the same hesitation to defend people who write about immoral sexual acts. Who will speak up for them?
The government figures that anyone who stands up for literary accounts of rape and other sexual crimes is going to lose. Their aim is to isolate, regulate, and attenuate a targeted group’s ability to resist. First federal regulators targeted the publisher of leaked military reports and diplomatic cables in the Wikileaks case. Now they a small group of fiction writers with the same confidence and power. If you are a regulator who wants to enforce your idea of what people can read, you’ll go after people who can’t rally much support.
The morality police go after people who can’t rally support, because others are afraid to stand up for them. First the government went after the whistleblowers. I wasn’t a whistleblower, so I let it go. Then they went after the Occupy protesters, but I wasn’t camping out with the Occupy movement, so I let it go. Still later they went after authors, pornographers, publishers and bloggers who violate community standards of decency. I wasn’t an author, pornographer, publisher or blogger, so I let it go. In they end they came after me, but no one was around anymore to stand up for me.
That is how we lost our democracy.