Not Listed on eBay: Free Speech


Taking its cues in part from human rights groups, auction super-giant eBayannounced last week that it will no longer allow individuals to list items for sale that promote hatred, racial intolerance or violence. WhileeBay is a private company and should be allowed to set its own policies, itsdecision sets a chilling precedent.

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

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

Why has eBay chosen now to crack down on items that may turn away loyalusers and surely cost the company money? After all, you can still findbootleg 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 individuallevel: a photo of an exploding oil rig is sure to arouse emotion in a familythat might have lost a relative in a similar explosion; images of guns maydisturb families whose lives have been torn apart by gang violence, and soforth. EBay supposedly wants to alleviate suffering caused by “emotionaltrauma.” 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 thatmay at the same time be controversial. A better course would be for eBay toset up a filtering system like AOL is implementing to cut down on pornography. This could placate the different points of view regarding whatis legal, offensive or inappropriate while still allowing users to purchaseitems 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 ofits own volition, it’s likely that the company would have bowed to requestsby attorneys, courts and governments to remove objectionable items. Yahoo!,which runs another Internet auction site, is fighting a ruling by a Frenchjudge last year ordering it to block French web surfers from accessinglistings of Nazi-era items. Now both Yahoo and eBay will be prohibitingthese items.

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

Lucas Mast

Lucas Mast is a research assistant in technology studies.