The San Jose, Calif.-based company will direct bidders and sellers to contact one another through eBay's own computers. That will protect members from spam, according to spokesman Kevin Pursglove.
And while eBay won't monitor, read or store the e-mail sent through its system, Pursglove said, the company will attach a generic warning about offline deals, which could result in a member being barred from the site.
"Solicitations to buy or sell items outside of eBay violate eBay rules and are not covered by services that protect members such as feedback, insurance, escrow and dispute resolution," eBay said in a posting on its announcement board. The company said it will tell members who receive e-mail through its system. "If this is an offer to buy or sell items outside of eBay, please do not participate."
Under the new policy, sellers can access the e-mail addresses of bidders on their auctions. And winning bidders can access the e-mail addresses of sellers. Members will also continue to be able to request other contact information such as phone numbers and street addresses from eBay.
Last month, eBay took steps to crack down on deals between members that are conducted outside of its auction system. At the time, eBay said the steps, which included spelling out unauthorized communications between members and threatening to suspend those who violated the rules, were in response to complaints about spam and fraud related to those off-system deals, as well as to the loss of revenue to the company.
Meanwhile, the Software and Information Industry Association reported last week that people who sell pirated software via online auction sites have begun to contact auction bidders directly instead of setting up actual auctions. The SIIA filed suit against two individuals last week that it accused of using those methods.
On the AuctionWatch message boards, eBay members were divided about the new changes.
Some praised the move as a way to cut down on spam and to restrict sellers from trying to undercut their rivals. Some sellers have been known to offer similar goods at reduced prices to their rivals' bidders while an auction is taking place.
"In my humble opinion, anything that will help put the scum sucking bottom feeders out of business, is a good thing," one member wrote.
Others questioned how dependable the eBay-run e-mail system would be, given problems like a nearly 11-hour site outage that hit eBay earlier this month.
"Now let me get this straight, the folks who can't keep their site up and running are going to be forwarding emails back and forth between seller and potential bidder," one AuctionWatch member asked in a post. "I can't wait to receive my first forwarded e-mail. The United States Postal Service will probably be quicker."
Pursglove said the new e-mail system will run on a different server than its auction system.
Some members worried that eBay representatives would read the e-mails, despite the company's assurances.
"Ebay is saying this will help reduce spam and will help them enforce compliance with their bidding rules," one member said. "How can they enforce compliance without reading or scanning the emails? Sounds like Big Brother is here."
As part of the new e-mail policy, earlier this week eBay began blocking new members from registering their e-mail addresses as their usernames on the system. The company also began encouraging current members who use e-mail addresses as their usernames to create a new username on the system.
"We are going to suggest that they think about changing it," Pursglove said. "It's one of the easiest sources of spamming."
Currently, eBay members can look up another members' e-mail address by simply filling out a request form on the auction site.
The company did not set a date for when the policy will go into effect.