BiasHELP, a Long Island, N.Y.-based organization that works with victims of hate crimes, sent a letter to eBay chief executive Meg Whitman yesterday asking the company to remove listings of Klan items.
"While we understand that eBay is a person-to-person Web site designed to facilitate transactions between individuals, we believe that the incredible size and reach of your audience creates special responsibilities," the group wrote in its letter to Whitman. "For many Americans, these items carry very painful and violent memories of a distressing time in our history."
eBay spokesman Kevin Pursglove said the company has not yet seen the letter. The auctioneer, however, is willing to talk with BiasHELP and other groups that raise questions about the items listed on eBay, Pursglove said.
"We are very much aware of some of the criticism that has been raised about many of these items, but eBay doesn't want to play the role of censor," he said.
BiasHELP's appeal to eBay follows requests late last year from the Nazi-hunting Simon Wiesenthal Center that the company remove armbands, daggers and other Nazi-related material from the site. Despite the protest, eBay has continued to permit the sale of such items.
Last year, eBay did ban the sale of firearms and alcohol and tobacco, however. eBay pulled those products because of legal concerns involved in selling across state lines or to minors, Pursglove said.
A search on eBay for "KKK" turns up 166 items, and a search for "Ku Klux Klan" yields 103. The items listed include a pocket knife with a Klan shield on the blade, an antique Klan hood and a T-shirt imprinted with a drawing of a burning cross. Many of the items have received multiple bids.
Although the sale of such items is legal in the United States, BiasHELP vice president Jeffrey Reynolds said the company should be held to a higher standard. As the leading auction site, eBay is drawing a large and growing number of families, minorities and young people who could be offended or influenced by the Klan items, Reynolds said.
"It's time for eBay to grow up and begin to deal with these issues," he said. "Selling T-shirts that show Klansmen burning crosses--I don't think that's a business that eBay needs to be in."
eBay could avoid a lot of negative attention if it bans auctions of Klan and other offensive material, Gomez Advisors analyst Martin DeBono said. But eliminating those auctions could lead to criticism from users, many of whom were already upset by the ban on firearms.
"Unfortunately, you're going to offend people both ways," DeBono said. "It's one of those 'damned if you do, damned if you don't' issues."