PayPal has apologized for blocking sales of a photojournalism book because it had the word “Iranian” in the title, saying its sanctions compliance mechanisms aren’t supposed to pick up on written materials.
The book, entitled “Iranian Living Room”, is a product of the Benetton Group’s Italian Fabrica facility (the same one that recently teamed up with Berg on the internet of things). It came out of a Fabrica project that saw 15 young Iranian photographers document domestic life at the time of the recent Iranian elections, in order to provide a counterpoint to the street imagery used by most international media organizations.
Late on Tuesday night, Fabrica’s Dan Hill posted an irate account of Fabrica’s abortive efforts to sell the book online. Orders appeared blocked, and it turned out that this was a result of PayPal’s internal “blacklist” – the word “Iranian” is on that list, due to the U.S.’s comprehensive economic embargo against Iran, so sales couldn’t go through. A PayPal account manager in Dublin apparently suggested changing the title of the book in the online shopping cart, until the item in question could be whitelisted (which has indeed since happened).
“Leaving aside the fact that of course we don’t want to change the name of our book in the shopping cart, I find this politically-motivated censorship, willingly if not actively carried out by a corporation, absolutely despicable,” Hill wrote. “I have no idea if the U.S. government actually enforces this on PayPal; the PayPal representative could not confirm or deny.”
I asked PayPal about the situation and they got back to me with the following mea culpa:
“PayPal makes every effort to comply with the laws and regulations in the countries in which we operate around the world. Our efforts include adhering to specific government sanctions involving designated countries. However, these sanctions were never intended to apply to books or written materials and we have worked to ensure that books are not impacted by our compliance with this policy.
“In this case, we obviously made a mistake. We are glad this error was corrected and brought to our attention. We regret this mistake and any inconvenience caused. We will work to avoid similar situations in the future.”
The Fabrica episode is, it must be said, a fairly minor incident as these things go, and quickly rectified at that. However, it does serve as a reminder of of the various choke points that can be activated in everyday online activity, whether deliberately or not, in the name of automated compliance.