Online auctioneer eBay is accusing rival Onsale of sending eBay customers unsolicited email to promote the launch of Onsale's own personal auction service.
eBay said several hundred of its users have complained about the unwanted messages, which the company labels spam.
Onsale's chief executive, Jerry Kaplan, contends the communications are not spam, aren't unwanted, and have ceased.
eBay chief executive Pierre Omidyar said, "This is the first time a public company, a large company of such high standing, has used spam to advertise its services. The Internet community is very much against the use of junk email. America Online, which is a partner with Onsale, is leading the war against spam."
Onsale's Kaplan said his company's messages aren't spam.
"eBay publishes on its Web site the addresses of its users, presumably so people can contact them about matters of import," he said. "Because we are launching a service, we thought it was a highly targeted [message]."
eBay is not alone in being upset by Onsale's tactics. Jim Sweetman, an Onsale customer, said the company "also spammed their own users with a notice of their new service. When I signed up, I asked to NOT get any e-mail from OnSale, but they sent me the notice anyway."
Onsale's message itself was straightforward, describing its new Exchange service that lets retailers, dealers, and individuals sell goods or services using Onsale's management system. The Exchange service is free through November and competes directly with eBay's own offering.
Prior to its email blitz last Thursday, the day before Onsale launched the service, the company did a test mailing to about 500 people to see whether the email messages were unwanted, Kaplan said. That testing elicited no complaints, he said.
"I know why they 'didn't get any complaints' about the spam," Sweetman said. "I tried to complain by replying and sending messages to admin and email@example.com of the messages bounced back."
"We found it was very much wanted and we felt eBay users had given eBay permission to post their email addresses because they wished to be contacted about a relevant issue," Kaplan noted.
Onsale's message upset eBay user Jeffery Warantz, however.
"Perhaps it wasn't an ad for an X-rated site, but it was unsolicited junk mail showing up in my email account. Spam is spam regardless of who sends it," said Warantz.
"The fact that I choose to use eBay should not open me up to an assault from Onsale," he added, saying eBay had promised him that it would never sell his email address. He said other auction houses also have recently sent him unwanted email.
Onsale used a "robot," or computer program, to systematically collect email addresses from eBay's Web site. In fact, in mid-October, eBay asked Onsale to stop crawling its Web site to collect email addresses, a request with which Onsale complied, Kaplan said.
Indeed, the incident has spurred eBay to reexamine its policies on publishing the email addresses of its 300,000 registered users.
Omidyar said: "We are looking at technological solutions to protect our members' privacy. We are looking for a simple way to hide the email addresses without impacting the community."
Although Onsale said the mailing is over, eBay wants further action.
"We want them to acknowledge that they made an error here, that they probably should not have spammed anybody," said Omidyar. "We'd like a promise that they not do it again in the future. We think it will harm their reputation."