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PayPal apologizes for blocking sales of photo book with “Iranian” in the title

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PayPal(s ebay) 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.

3 Responses to “PayPal apologizes for blocking sales of photo book with “Iranian” in the title”

  1. Tom Waring

    Ah the super system that credited a man 92 quadrillion made another mistake? Astonishing.

    Here is one more to add to the list of “mistakes” over there at eBay / Paypal (but this one is human): it looks like the Board of Directors saw their low quarterly earnings report coming and decided they would fix it by…wait for it…ending their ban on selling adult content online at Paypal.

    They don’t want any press, obviously. They started in June selling adult online in Europe. Why would the Board of Directors make this decision? Fear of Wall Street? Love of skin?

    Surely they must know that their share price will take a hit. Retirement funds, university endowments and other institutional funds are banned from investing in companies that sell “adult”.

  2. This article is particularly very interesting to me since I am residing in the United States and have written and published several books regarding the philately of Iran and had offered them on my website ( using PayPal shopping cart, but regretfully they had blocked the sale of my books just for the reason of having the name of IRAN in their titles. Eventually I had to remove the name of IRAN from the titles in the PayPal shopping cart in order to be able to sell the books, which had been researched, written, and published in the United States of America.
    It seems that PayPal & eBay, both are not practicing and following the rule of law and actually they seem to be breaking the laws based on discrimination against a nation for bearing the name a certain name; IRAN!
    Indeed this discriminating practice must be exposed and brought to the attention of the public, since discrimination is discrimination, no matter how you look at it and must be confronted publicly and legally.
    Your most important article is appreciated.
    Best regards
    Mehrdad Sadri

  3. The outrage is silly. This was clearly not “politically-motivated censorship”, it was a simple error, which they promptly corrected.

    If they had accidentally allowed an embargoed item to be sold they would have violated the law and could have faced severe penalties, so of course they are going to error on the side of caution and filter out anything questionable until they can review it.