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eBay to prohibit alcohol, tobacco sales

Six months after closing down firearm sales on its site, the online auction leader says it will soon forbid sales of alcohol and tobacco products as well.

Six months after closing down firearm sales on its site, online auction leader eBay announced it will soon forbid sales of alcohol and tobacco products as well.

The company posted the new policy on its announcement board this afternoon. A month from now it will begin the prohibition.

But unlike the uproar that surrounded the company's decision on firearms and a more recent policy retreat on so-called reserve auctions, today's announcement seems to leave most eBay users feeling indifferent. A few posted messages on eBay's "Discuss New Features" message board, inquiring of what other users thought. The eBay message boards on AuctionWatch seemed quiet as well, with only 5 messages posted on the subject.

The move seems to be part of eBay's maturation. As it becomes less of an Internet start-up and move of a established business, the San Jose, California, company has been implementing systems and policies to keep it from running afoul of the law, if not community standards.

eBay spokesman Kevin Pursglove said the company had been considering the action for several months and made its decision because of the complications involved in interstate sales of tobacco and alcohol. What might be a legal sale in one state could be illegal in another, Pursglove said; and eBay users could commit a felony without realizing it.

"As a general rule, these laws are just so complex and contradictory, that we just decided that in the best interest of our users to prevent that situation from ever occurring," he said.

Pursglove said he was not aware of any tobacco or alcohol sale on eBay that had prompted a response from authorities.

He also said that alcohol and tobacco sales make up a small percentage of eBay's gross merchandise sales, but declined to state the percentage.

Andrea Williams, a research analyst at E*Offering, said that in eBay's calculations, the potential risks of continuing to have alcohol and tobacco products for sale on its site probably outweighed any possible benefits of keeping or regulating the sales. If a child were to buy alcohol or tobacco through the site, the company would suffer a "public relations disaster," Williams said.

"It was probably easier to ban it," she said.

Despite the new restrictions, eBay still permits sales on other controversial items, such as pornography. Although Pursglove said the laws are clearer on pornography, Williams said she was surprised that the company still allowed sales of such material. As Internet companies like eBay mature, they have become more their offline counterparts, she said.

"The loosey-goosey days of the first couple of years give way to companies that have to be run like businesses," Williams said. "That means fewer freedoms and more rules and regulations."

One eBay user spoke out against the policy, accusing the company of trying to control classes of auctions while masquerading as a "venue" where users can freely buy and sell.

"It's amazing how eBay constantly preaches 'only a venue' and then bans a class of items because they can't 'control' the sales of it," wrote "Johnpauljones" in a post to AuctionWatch. "They are talking out of both sides of their mouths again. ...It brings them closer and closer to a lawsuit."

But while eBay users have responded tepidly thus far, it comes at a time when the company seems to be walking on thin ice with many customers. Furious over the auction site's repeated outages as well as previous policy innovations, many eBay users have taken to skewering the company both on the company's own message boards and on outside boards like those at AuctionWatch.

Last month, for example, eBay modified an announced policy on reserve auctions after protests from users. Reserve auctions are a type of auction format in which sellers refuse to sell an item unless bidding on it reaches a pre-set or reserve price.

Many users have also moved some or all of their listings to other Internet auction sites like those on Yahoo and Amazon. However, neither Amazon nor Yahoo has been able to match eBay's number and breadth of listings.