This was going to be a post about our new Fabrica publication, "Iranian Living Room", and in a way it still is.
"Iranian Living Room" is a new photojournalism project we've produced and self-published. Enrico Bossan, our brilliant head of photography, sought out 15 young Iranian photographers to take pictures of "interior life" in Iran (mainly Tehran.) We wanted to coincide with the Iranian election as we knew much of the associated imagery would be CNN and BBC cameras on the streets. But we also knew that the real discussions amongst Iranians would take place in private, off the streets, in the relative freedom of the "living room", away from the prying eyes of the world's media, and the state.
The results were wonderful, and a credit to the photographers, and to Enrico and his team, Fabrica designer An Nam Young, and coordinator Farhad Babaei. For Fabrica, in this case, it was interesting to work as a platform for the photography of others, as curator, facilitator, producer. The book is a fine physical object too, on great paper, with embossed gold cover, exposed spine binding whose colours evoke the carpets pictured throughout, and it lies open flat just like Robin says it should.
It's a lovely, lovely book, with texts by Enrico and Hamid Ziarati; more details here. (La Repubblica were kind enough to do a spread of photos from it in their "D" magazine on Saturday.)
We wanted to design, produce and publish the book ourselves, using the internet to distribute rather than the traditional route of labouring under the often antiquated conditions of publishers and retailers. It's the first time that Fabrica has self-published a major book, so a big step forward. So we dutifully created the Fabrica shop using Shopify, and plugged in our PayPal and credit card accounts, just as we do with Colors magazine.
There the fun started. We couldn't place orders and could't figure out why (the error was a non-specific error code, with no explanation.) After calls and emails to Shopify and PayPal (the PayPal office in Dublin, actually; hello tax evasion!) it turned out PayPal was the problem.
I was told that their shopping cart code was blocking the order because the book had the word "Iranian" in the title. And that word is on a "blacklist" (their word, not mine) as PayPal is based in the USA. And that was that. Our PayPal account manager on the phone in Dublin—who was vaguely helpful and evasive in equal measure—said that he could tell by my accent that I was American and I would understand the issue.
Leaving aside the fact that I am in fact English, and generally sound like it, I find the broader point extraordinary in so many ways I barely know where to start.
PayPal are currently looking into whether they can hard code our book's title into a "white list" (again, their words) of phrases that their filters will not block. (This is not exactly the solution I had in mind.) In the meantime, they suggested we change the name of the book in our shopping cart.
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.
If a person judged a book not even by its cover, but by its title—or rather, by one word in its title—and judged it to the extent that they actively tried to restrict its distribution, without examining the actual book for a nanosecond, you would think them a moron at worst, if not a moron with worryingly totalitarian instincts.
You can of course say that we don't have to deploy PayPal as a component of our business—that we are free to choose—but as we know a) free markets do not tend to generate much choice, and b) if PayPal had made clear this kind of thing was likely to happen I would have run a mile. When you look at their homepage, "censorship" does not exactly leap out at you as one of their core brand values, although perhaps it should. It's a company's, or a state's, choice as regards their position on such things, but one must at least make it clear.
When the error occurred, of course they do not have the guts to state that the error code is generated because "Iranian" is on a list of banned words and accordingly you cannot put a product with that word in it in your shopping cart. (Perhaps PayPal would prefer that the title was "Living Rooms in the Axis of Evil" or "Living Rooms of People Not Like Us" or "If You Like These Living Rooms So Much Why Don't You Go And Live There?")
One of the implicit ideas behind the "Iranian Living Room" project was to indicate how everyday life in Iran is not so different to ours in "the West"; how people in the comfort of their own homes also slouch in front of the TV, act up in front of a mirror, argue, smoke, play around, eat together, dress differently, gossip, play with their pets, how men and women live together and apart in the same space, and so on. How everyday life is not so alien; how people are not always living under a restrictive political regime monitoring and controlling all of their communications.
Oh, the irony.
You can currently buy "Living Room" from the Fabrica shop. Please do. It's a wonderful book, and is in fact called "Iranian Living Room". (Have I made that clear? The book is about Iran, people: enter at your own risk!) The proceeds cover the cost of doing the project, no more. I hope to be able to report back that it will be correctly titled in shopping cart at some point too. And as soon as we set up the ability for you to buy it via your credit card direct—in a few days—we will be removing PayPal from the Fabrica and Colors stores. If you use PayPal, I encourage you to do the same. (I would hold back our book appearing in the store until this happened, but thanks to the project's publication in La Repubblica and elsewhere, we have to make the book available now.)
Hopefully I'll be able to post about the project itself soon.
(Thanks also to Fabrica's Aaron, Federico, Giulia and Paola for gamely trying to fix this mess for the last two days.)
The PayPal account manager emailed to say: "Your account has been added to the whitelist and will no longer see that error message." Right. So the book has the correct title in the store once again, but this does not, of course, lay a finger on the bigger issue.
When I firmly pointed out to the PayPal account manager that this wasn't good enough, I got this copy-pasted chunk of text in return (I could see it was copy-pasted as it was a different font to the rest of the message. Always a giveaway, that.)
As a global company, PayPal has a presence in multiple jurisdictions requiring it and its subsidiaries to abide by sanctions regulations. These regulations are imposed by governmental regulatory bodies, including the U.S. Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), the Luxembourg Commission de Surveillance du Secteur Financier (CSSF), the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) and Japan Ministry of Finance (MOF), among others.
PayPal’s compliance with the sanctions regulations include screening to detect account holders and transactions that are not supported by the PayPal system for regulatory reasons. This includes screening for transactions which are for the benefit of ?sanctioned entities? (i.e. entities which are searched on international lists to prevent financing of terrorism and money laundering) and screening against other internationally binding rules affecting local and cross border trade, as the case may be.
As previously announced in May 2012 (https://www.x.com/node/309468), we have introduced API error 13122 (Transaction violates PayPal User Agreement). In the next release, currently scheduled for Feb 20, PayPal will expand the scanning of transactions and various PayPal account attributes. Any payment initiated where a potential match is found may be immediately declined with error code 13122 at the attempt of payment, and the payer will not be able to pay with PayPal in this instance.
It's worth noting that the above link to x.com does not work.
I've received an email from PayPal management apologising profusely. I'll update again shortly with more details.
OK, yesterday was an interesting day. The upshot of it is that PayPal management emailed me, apologising profusely. Our book—which I'd rather was getting all the attention, to be honest—could be purchased via PayPal as it had been added to their "whitelist".
PayPal have issued statements to all and sundry in the media stating that it was a temporary mistake, a mere oversight, which they rectified quickly.
I still struggle with many aspects of this, however.
Firstly, it took a lot of effort on our part to get PayPal to pay attention to the issue. It took three or four of our staff calling almost constantly to get PayPal Dublin to deal with our issues. It took me, as CEO, personally intervening. In terms of "adding it to the whitelist", I had to suggest that the account manager walk across the floor to ask the engineer directly whether it was possible (I was being told they didn't know whether it was possible; I asked whether the engineer was in Dublin or California, and on being told "Dublin", I suggested it would be a simple thing to find out.) Yes, PayPal might do 7.5m transactions a day, as was pointed out to me, but they're on a handful of codebases and this is a line of code, which would take minutes to commit.
Secondly, upon complaining about the issue, I was sent what the PayPal management later described as the "boilerplate" text above. Had I not written this blog entry and used social media (and had a long-running blog and active social media profile—not exactly Beyoncé, but y'know) would there really have been an apology forthcoming?
I do believe the manager at "PayPal Global Initiatives" is sincere when he says "this sort of thing makes me sick to my stomach." He seems, in email, a nice guy and is trying to help. But he also says "we could have handled this better and we could have turned you back on faster without you having to resort to social media to get our attention."
I suspect I had to resort to social media to get their attention. Had this blog entry not been subsequently picked up by everyone from BBC Persian to GigaOm, from Dezeen to Fast Company, would, in the manager's words, our "case (have) gotten the attention of the leadership at PayPal (who are) making changes to make sure this doesn't happen to anyone else"? If it had been someone stepping into the internet for almost the first time and setting up their first online shop, would they have known how to bring it to their attention, and thus got the issue solved? Known to push when told it might be difficult to change some code? Or would they have stopped and tried something else, when that first call to PayPal proved problematic, obscure, troubling; possibly concluding it was their fault not PayPal's? We know (roughly) how this business works, and we pushed, and as a result of this complete accident, we're glad that we brought an issue to some of the world's attention, and got PayPal to fix it pretty quickly.
But I do wonder what would've happened had we not been persistent with our phone calls, or we had changed the name of the book, as suggested, or not taken to the internet to amplify the issue.
Thirdly, and I think most importantly, I still cannot get a real clarification on "the error" that they are apologising for. They apologise for applying the blacklist to our book. But does this mean that the blacklist should not apply to all books, or all 'cultural products', or what? Or that it should not apply as we are in Italy, and not under US jurisdiction? And what is the blacklist applied to? And what else is on the blacklist?
(I have half a mind to commission a new Fabrica project: an installation with three screens: one, to the left, generating fake product names; the middle, illustrating attempts to push said faux-products through transactions with PayPal, indicating real-time success or failure, and third to the right tracing the outline of the emerging blacklist. Is "Persian soap" OK? How about "Australian weapons grade uranium"? "Iraqi cheese"? "French pot"? When you bump into what Rory Hyde called "PayPal's blunt geopolitical cyberwall" it feels a bit like the old Indian legend about the blind men feeling the shape of an elephant ...)
The opacity of the operation is the most worrying aspect, for me. As I said above, it is an individual's, a company's, or a state's, right to choose what to filter. We all do. I am a grown-up, and understand something of the world we live in and work in as a commercial entity. As long as I know who I'm working with, what their position is, and what they're interesting in moving towards, I can judge whether I'm happy to work with them.
But I would like to think that a corporation, particularly originating in the "land of the free", would benefit from being honest, open and relatively transparent about their business operations. Perhaps it would even be an advantage to be seen to be doing so in the current climate. That would appear to be wishful thinking as regards PayPal—I simply cannot see them doing it any time soon, but I would love to be proved wrong. The number of US citizens expressing outrage about this on my Twitter stream was something to behold. Most had no idea that there were filters deployed in this way, books or not.
This opacity allied to the sheer bluntness of their code is troubling. The most banal of filters was applied:
If (word) equals "Iranian" then fail.
It's utterly elementary stuff. Again, how many other titles have previously been inadvertently blocked through this? And against what search terms? That code barely qualifies as an algorithm. This is not exactly writing software we cannot read.
At a deeper level, it indicates a startling misunderstanding of the cultural power of code. In stark if mundane terms, It illustrates how software is actually shifting culture, in this case, presumably inadvertently. Their lazy coding prevented what I think is a good book coming into the world. It reveals a fundamental lack of care for the potency of their algorithms.
Clearly, our little episode is no PRISM, and no Flash Crash — at face value, it is nothing. It is over already. Yet its own small way, it is somehow another indication of how network culture, as nebulous a concept as that is, can directly or indirectly affect our lives.
In a sense, you can read it as a storm in a teacup, or a teacup in a storm. (Either way, it's a teacup.) But this non-episode either describes an errant line of code, fixed within a couple of days ... or it is another indication of how algorithms are shaping the way we now live, work and play. Were such error to be applied in the context of a smart city, as opposed to 'merely' 7.5m financial transactions per day, you can see why I and others are talking in terms of starting with smart citizens instead.
In these case, code can be used to create immense cultural possibilities (or, at our really basic level, we can use new infrastructure to self-publish a book of photojournalism.) Or it can be used to destroy them, curtail them, inhibit them. A software company, embroiled in radical disruption as PayPal is, should do better. It should take more care.
Sadly, only a few non-coders understand the cultural power of code; equally, it would seem only a few coders understand the cultural power of code.
Did I mention that Fabrica has a new book out?