PayPal Temporarily Bans Book for Having "Iranian" in the Title

Though PayPal functionality was eventually restored, it looks like the company has lost at least one customer's business.

Iranian Living Room seems innocuous enough. The book by Italy-based communications research center Fabrica featured images taken by local photographers depicting the interior of Iranian homes. Yet for some reason, the book's customer orders weren't processing. Fabrica, an arm of the Benetton Group, later learned it was because its book had been banned by PayPal.

It turned out Iranian was a blacklisted word in PayPal's dictionary, according to Fabrica managing editor Dan Hill in a blog post. PayPal's representatives suggested he change the title of the book to bypass the inconvenience. The title remained the same, however, and PayPal was eventually able to add the title to an internal white list, according to Hill.

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. I have no idea if the US government actually enforces this on PayPal; the PayPal representative could not confirm or deny.

The whole incident left a bad taste in Hill's mouth, who said Fabrica will remove PayPal as a payment option as soon as the Fabrica online store adds the ability to make purchases directly by credit card.

A PayPal spokesman said that the book was accidentally banned in compliance with laws and regulations in countries in which it operates. (PayPal does not operate in Iran.)

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.

This isn't PayPal's only flub in recent days. Over the weekend, Chris Reynolds of Media, Pa., logged into his account to discover $92 quadrillion. To his dismay, the balance returned to zero when he logged in again later. If the money were his, Reynolds said he would've spent it first by paying down the U.S.'s debt, which totals more than $10 trillion.

To make things right, the PayPal spokesman said the company "hope[s] to honor this spirit by donating to a cause of his choice - we've reached out to him to make this offer and to let him know we are grateful that he's a customer!"

[Image: Flickr user Martin Christoffel]

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  • feedback_austin

    As much as PayPal needs to do a better job at this stuff, knowing what I do of their internals (I used to have a senior technical role there) this was probably nothing more than a very heavy handed attempt to comply with US trade restrictions on Iran. Given the enormous volume of goods that PayPal processes, compliance with broad legal obligations like this requires the use of automated filters which, frankly, aren't particularly smart or selective. It's not an easy technical problem to overcome, so as much as they apologize, you can count on stories like this continuing to crop up from time to time.
    The $92 quadrillion thing, on the other hand, was clearly just the result of a stupid software bug that never should have made it into production, or a typing mistake by a careless customer service agent (or both, frankly, since CS folks shouldn't be able to make mistakes of that magnitude).

  • Tom Waring

    And for another mistake over there at eBay / Paypal: 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".

  • Greg Hitch

    Double tap! How are they going to get out of this one?  Now we sell online "adult" but shhhhh we do not want to tell our investors because they might get upset? Come on paypal and your board at eBay... this is ridiculous behavior!

  • Tom Waring

    I know, right? And the board is not full of amateurs. William Ford (Ford Motor Company), Marc Andreesen (Facebook), Kathleen Mitic (Special Olympics), etc. 

    You would think they know that the internet hive mind will find out these kinds of things...