Tech Industry

eBay toughens up on discussion boards

The harder stance by the big auction site on sharing information sparks censorship complaints from its community. Do eBay members have a case?

eBay is tightening up the rules for its community discussion boards, sparking complaints that the rules are choking off the free flow of information among members.

Under the new rules, eBay community members can't use the boards to warn others if they were ripped off by a buyer or a seller, they can't ask each other where to find a particular item to buy, they can't share private e-mail, and--if eBay decides to delete an offending post--the members aren't allowed to even discuss the post.

Members who violate the rules can be banned from buying and selling on the site, and if that happens the millions of other eBay members are barred from even discussing that person on the boards--or they too are at risk of being kicked out of the community.

"They're just trying to stop any criticism at all," said Joe, an eBay seller from Greenville, S.C., who asked that his last name not be used.

eBay, like other sites with discussion boards, has always had certain commonsense regulations: no pornography, hate speech or threats of violence, no using JavaScript or other coding that could interfere with the site operations, no making repetitive posts or sending abusive messages.

And eBay has the legal right to restrict discussion on its boards, since it owns and operates them. Any charges of censorship would fall on deaf ears in the courts, because the First Amendment only prohibits the government from restricting speech.

"The law has endorsed in general the idea that it's eBay's forum and they get to write the rules," said Cindy Cohn, legal director for the Electronic Frontier Foundation. "If people don't like what eBay's doing, they should look for other places to do business."

Question of liability
And although eBay notes in its policy that all messages posted to the boards are solely the opinion and responsibility of the poster, and not eBay, there is some question of liability. Although Congress has given Web site operators some protection for being held liable for the actions of their members, a growing number of lawsuits have been filed recently against operators of discussion boards for posts by their members.

eBay's announcement about the changes didn't mention any of those issues, simply stating that the revisions were meant to "clarify expectations, to make the basic rules of conduct easier to understand, and to remove or replace obsolete language," according to the site.

eBay representatives did not return calls Wednesday seeking comment about the new rules.

eBay has long touted its community of buyers and sellers as one of its greatest assets, a common refrain among online companies that place high value on their relationships with customers. Because there is still some uncertainty for many people to give out personal information or credit card information on the Web, online sites ferociously guard their reputation, and it is generally acknowledged that reports of fraud or security problems can hurt business.

At eBay, the scores of chat, discussion and help boards have long been a place for members to have fairly freewheeling discussions on everything from how to sell a particular product to the latest political issues. Many of the boards are focused on specific categories, and others are chat rooms devoted to specific topics such as Elvis or Furbies or stamp collections, for example. And, despite one of the rules that specifically bans charitable solicitations, there is a "Giving Board" chat room that tells visitors: "Our members have big hearts. Do you know of someone in need? Post their story or their needs on our Giving Board."

In the past, eBay has taken steps to restrict interaction between members, usually to protect its financial interests or protect members from spam, or unsolicited e-mail. For example, the company set up an e-mail system that masks members' e-mail addresses and transmits messages between them through its servers. And the company has outlawed deals between members that take place outside of eBay, threatening to ban members who conduct these deals for products that had been listed on the auction site.

Minor adjustments
Some of the new rule changes on the eBay boards are minor. For instance, the company has clarified a rule banning advertising on the discussion boards, extending the prohibition to cover members who try to solicit money for charity.

Likewise, eBay clarified a prohibition against posting another individual's contact information by taking out a clause saying, "without permission." Claire, an eBay representative that took part in a discussion about the changes and did not give her last name, pointed out that the rule is meant to safeguard the privacy of other people and that it is often difficult to determine whether permission has been granted for the posting of that kind of information.

But other changes stand out, such as the ban on posting e-mail or mentioning suspended members or suspicious activity.

eBay says all reports of suspicious auctions should be e-mailed to eBay directly, "to avoid accidental harm to innocent parties," according to Claire.

"Public investigations may be auction interference and if an innocent member is the subject of discussion, there may be damage that cannot be undone," Claire said in her post.

"We want to stress that the intent is not to stop members from discussing rules violations in general. Members of the eBay community should continue to actively discuss practices or trends which they feel are inappropriate to the eBay marketplace, in order to continue to help us have your input available for the formulation of policy."

But some members charge that the prohibition on mentioning specific sellers or auctions that may be fraudulent will lead to more fraud on the site.

"Who are they trying to protect? Certainly not the reputable sellers in my opinion," said Liz Chancellor, an eBay seller from Midland, Texas.

Candy Beckman has sold jewelry, crafts and other items on eBay since 1999. The Davenport, Iowa, resident often answers other members' questions on one of eBay's help chat boards.

Info a source of comfort
Often, members come to the board when they think they've been ripped off. In one recent incident, a new member pointed Beckman and other members to a seller who seemed to be defrauding others. By checking out the seller and the seller's auctions, Beckman and the other members were able to confirm the suspicious activity, report it to eBay and have the seller suspended.

"It's going make it much harder to be able to do that now," Beckman said.

The company has also banned reporters and other "third parties" from posting on its message boards or e-mailing members without contacting the company's legal department first.

"This helps assure that the eBay community is made aware if they are speaking to someone who is acting in a professional capacity, rather than as a fellow member," Claire said in her post.

The changes are good, according to Robert Novak, a pet-store owner who sued a community Web site last year after being the target of negative posts on the site devoted to people whose hobby is aquatic plants and animals.

"I think that it's irresponsible for any chat room and forum to allow people to defame someone wrongfully," Novak said Wednesday. "We were the victim of repeated false and erroneous accusations and we decided we weren't going to take it anymore."

Novak's case, filed in federal court in New York against the owner and members of the Aquatic Plant Digest site, is still working its way through the courts. Although the defendants in the case have argued that they were just expressing their opinions, some have been forced to settle, citing their inability to pay for defense lawyers.

Cohn, of the EFF, said Novak's suit and eBay's actions are part of a trend by companies to muffle any criticism about them online.

"Most of the law in this area is surrounded to keep the government from trying to squelch speech, but what we're seeing are more corporations trying to squelch speech," Cohn said. "I hope that executives come to the proper conclusion, that...allowing people to speak their mind...is still the right thing to do."

She added: "Our country is founded on the idea that the remedy for speech is more speech."

Geoffrey Kleinman, founder of online community site DVDTalk.com, said he's worried that other discussion groups may follow eBay's move and dampen the exchange of opinions and ideas. Community sites and discussion-group operators, he hopes, will stand their legal ground and protect their customers' right to free speech.

"The Internet is a tool like nothing else for connecting consumers to each other," said Kleinman, whose site has about 350,000 members. "In my opinion, a customer relating a bad experience at a particular vendor is valuable information that should be protected."