Policy Changes at Ebay
Posted 05/16/01

Ah, Ebay.  Love or hate it, it's managed to become a part of our culture in just a few short years.  Leno jokes about it, last week's Futurama joked about it, and everyone from elementary school kids to grandparents know all about it.

They announced two new policy changes at Ebay in the last couple weeks that I thought I'd mention here, since they could have significant impact on some folks.  First up is a change to their policy on 'hate propaganda'.  Here's the text:

"It has long been eBay's policy to disallow the sale of items that promote hatred, violence or racism. As the eBay community expands to include many nations, it is important that our policy regarding these items be consistent throughout our global marketplace.

Early last year, eBay implemented a policy prohibiting the listing of items that promote or glorify hatred, violence or racial intolerance, or that promote organizations with such views. Until now, certain items pertaining to these organizations were allowed if they could be considered "historical objects", i.e. were at least 50 years old.

We are now broadening our prohibition to include more items, regardless of age. In addition, the current guidelines for items associated with notorious murderers are also being strengthened. This includes prohibiting personal belongings, letters and artwork created by such individuals, as well as novelty items bearing their names and images.

Examples of items that will generally be removed under the expanded guidelines are:

**Items that bear symbols of the Nazis and the Nazi SS, including authentic German WWII memorabilia;
**Items that bear symbols of the KKK or other hate groups;
**Crime scene photographs;
**Morgue and autopsy photographs;
**Letters and artwork from notorious murderers;
**T-shirts bearing the likeness of a notorious murderer;
**Copies of hate/racism/violence propaganda materials;
**Electric chairs and related capital punishment items.

Examples of items that may generally be listed include:

**German coins and stamps from the 1930s and 1940s, regardless of markings;
**German WWII memorabilia that doesn't bear Nazi or SS markings;
**Most historical books and movies about WWII or Nazi Germany, even if Nazi
symbols appear on the item;
**War documentaries or documentary photos portraying victims of war or violence;
**Items of historical importance associated with acts of violence against public figures.

The new guidelines will take effect on May 17, 2001. At that point, all listings that include the prohibited items listed above may be ended.

We hope that these guidelines will make eBay a more comfortable and welcoming place for all members of our global community."

Some folks see this as improper on Ebay's part, but Ebay is a business, and they have to have policies that they feel comfortable with.  And as a business, it's not their responsibility to be a conduit for hate groups.  Beyond the business aspect, there are their own personal feelings and ethics, and if that is the real reason they are doing this, then they should be commended.  It may hurt them in the long run, but sometimes doing something you feel is right does.

Of course, this all could just be them trying their best not to piss anyone off.  If that's the case, they better give up now, because in a global, well connected marketplace, you'll always find someone to piss off.

I mention this change not for the political ramifications, but because it will have an effect on action figure collectors.  Since anything with Nazi symbols is on the black list, realistic 1/6th scale figures and vehicles like those from Dragon will be, uh, verboten.  I doubt that will have much of a negative impact on Ebay, but it could effect the sales of someone like Dragon, since they aren't a huge company.  Only time will tell.

The second change effects the sellers of items.  Plenty of sellers include a link in their postings to their on line store or personal web page with their other items for sale.  Ebay decided to stop allowing this:

"The intent of the View Item page has always been to describe a specific item listed for sale. eBay has inconsistently enforced this policy over the past few years. This inconsistency has lead to confusion among our users regarding the purpose of the View Item page. And it has led to the mistaken impression for many users who close transactions outside of the eBay platform that they were still covered by our policies and trust and safety provisions.

In an effort to bring our policy and enforcement into alignment, beginning May 31, 2001 we will:

1. Clarify and consistently enforce the View Item page links policy;
2. Permit only links to eBay or listings and links to third party credits from the View Item page;
3. Modify the policy and allow users to link off their About Me page to their homepage or storefront.

These changes apply to all items listed on eBay including our International sites, eBay Motors and eBay Premier.

We recognize that these changes may directly impact some of our sellers. It is important to recall, however, that the intent of the View Item page is not to advertise other products or businesses, but to describe the specific item listed. By focussing on the item listed, the View Item page provides sellers a space to engage and inform buyers about that item. It also clearly denotes that the item is on eBay and that the buyer will have access to all the services eBay offers, such as feedback and insurance.

The place to inform the community about other aspects of a user's business or interests is through the About Me page, the free space we provide all of our users.

By working together, eBay and our sellers have created a robust marketplace. Sellers that attempt to divert buyers off eBay potentially decrease the value of the marketplace to the entire community. We believe that by clarifying and enforcing this policy we will strengthen the marketplace for everyone."

Here we have an excellent example of marketing hooey.  First they claim that links from an item to another web page have given their users the false sense of security in any additional transactions.  That's an utter load of bullshit.  I have no doubt that there are people stupid enough to get confused.  But anyone that has ever had a problem with a buyer or seller on Ebay knows that there is little security in the first place.  Buying or selling something on their site is certainly no guarantee.

They finally get to the heart of the matter by the end of the document.  "Decrease the value of the marketplace" simply means we don't like people getting free advertising to sell other items that they should be paying us to list.

And at one level, they are absolutely right.  Why should they provide the seller with a free link to another site to sell dozens of more items?  But leaving it there ignores the most important thing Ebay has - their relationship to their sellers.

When Ebay went public, analysts poo-pooed them.  Why?  Because anyone can enter the on-line auction market with little investment up front.  With such a small barrier to entry, anyone could come along and beat them out.

That ignored the fact that Ebay had all the sellers though.  If all the sellers are there, then all the buyers come.  And if all the buyers come, the sellers don't leave.  That has made Ebay the dominant force in the on-line world that it is.

Taking away this form of free advertising for their sellers will cause them to lose some.  It will piss off even more.  And this type of behavior will open that door another small fraction for some other auction site to come in and steal market share.  Open that door enough, and Ebay could find itself in trouble.

What I don't understand is why they went about this in such a all-or-nothing manner.  By not allowing the seller to use links, they aren't going to force that seller to list 10 times the number of items.  Rather than disallow any link, why not charge a nominal fee for the link - say a buck?  It's a happy medium, giving sellers the opportunity to still use listings as an advertisement for their own sites, generating more revenue for Ebay (much more than this new policy) and not alienating their sellers entirely.

Businesses don't always make good decisions.  Group think, deadline pressures, unrealistic expectations, and just good old emotion often get in their way.  I think this is one of those situations where they acted without putting enough thought into the process and what they really wanted.

Ah, but then what the hell do I know.  Drop me a line about either new change, and let me know what you think.

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