Commentary

Not Listed on eBay: Free Speech

By Lucas Mast
May 23, 2001
Taking its cues in part from human rights groups, auction super-giant eBay announced last week that it will no longer allow individuals to list items for sale that promote hatred, racial intolerance or violence. While eBay is a private company and should be allowed to set its own policies, its decision sets a chilling precedent.

For starters, who is to say what promotes hatred, racial intolerance or violence? EBay says its policy change is based on what the majority of users want, not on moral judgments. I have been using eBay for years, and each time it has changed its policies (on privacy, contacting sellers, etc.), I have been notified via email. But not this time. It seems that those who complained about being offended had a louder voice than those who either liked the controversial merchandise or, like myself, did not care either way.

Falling prey to eBay’s discretionary removal are historical items related to Nazis, the Ku Klux Klan, and notorious criminals. This means that the recordings of Charles Manson and the artwork of John Wayne Gacy are soon to be banned goods. (Oddly, the Soviet and Chinese flags—-regimes responsible for nearly 100 million deaths—-are not banned.)

Why has eBay chosen now to crack down on items that may turn away loyal users and surely cost the company money? After all, you can still find bootleg CDs on eBay with little difficulty, as well as other items that are sure to offend someone: The Trench Coat Diaries (Columbine), lawn jockeys, The Satanic Bible, and Fraulein Devil (a B-movie involving Nazi rape). Other items available are likely to disturb people on a more individual level: a photo of an exploding oil rig is sure to arouse emotion in a family that might have lost a relative in a similar explosion; images of guns may disturb families whose lives have been torn apart by gang violence, and so forth. EBay supposedly wants to alleviate suffering caused by “emotional trauma.” But where does this compassion start, and stop?

If eBay continues to systematically exclude items based on fear mongering, users will gravitate to other sites that allow the sale of legal items that may at the same time be controversial. A better course would be for eBay to set up a filtering system like AOL is implementing to cut down on pornography. This could placate the different points of view regarding what is legal, offensive or inappropriate while still allowing users to purchase items as they have since the inception of eBay.

The decision by eBay to bend to pressure from some incensed users does not bode well for the future of auction sites. While eBay is taking action of its own volition, it’s likely that the company would have bowed to requests by attorneys, courts and governments to remove objectionable items. Yahoo!, which runs another Internet auction site, is fighting a ruling by a French judge last year ordering it to block French web surfers from accessing listings of Nazi-era items. Now both Yahoo and eBay will be prohibiting these items.

Maybe it’s time to start a new auction site that preserves individuals rights to free expression and free speech. And for the time being, if you don’t like an item listed on eBay, send an e-mail to the seller or, easier still, don’t bid.

Lucas Mast is a research assistant in technology studies.