eBay set to clean up pornographic auctions

The auction site plans to relocate its sexually related auction items and ban sellers from listing certain pornographic goods.

4 min read
eBay is cleaning up its red light district.

eBay plans to redirect the steamier auction items to a "Mature Audiences" area, ban some pornographic or sexually related items and bar sellers from using graphic sexual pictures in the listings.

The new rules will be implemented next month, according to a posting on the auction site's announcements board.

In a note to members, eBay likened the new rules to those a city adopts when it creates a red light zone for sex shops or the logic a bookstore uses when it separates adult magazines from other magazines.

"We are aware that sellers want the broadest market possible for their items, and it's natural that they would want to list 'adult' items in eBay's open area of the site," the company said in its note. "eBay has to make tough calls regarding what's just 'risque' and acceptable for minors and what's truly pornographic and appropriate for adults.

"The announced changes strike what we believe is a balanced approach for the listing and promotion of adult items on eBay."

eBay representatives did not return calls seeking comment.

Sellers respond
The new policy comes on the heels of the launch of Disney Auctions. Part of a broader agreement between Disney and eBay, Disney Auctions features memorabilia from Disney films and theme parks.

The launch also comes as eBay has retained talent agency William Morris to help develop a TV show. The company is shopping the project to the major television networks, including Disney-owned ABC.

Some sellers of adult material speculated that Disney was behind eBay's new policy.

"Since they've made these deals with Disney lately, I wonder if Disney isn't behind it," said Baltimore resident Bill Eskdale, who sells 19th century engravings and pornographic videos on eBay. "It's the mouse that roared. Maybe I should invest in a rat trap."

A Disney representative declined to comment on eBay's decision, saying only that "eBay sets it own policy." But some industry experts say the timing of the new policy on adult material is more than a coincidence.

"The maturation of eBay's relationship with Disney has had a clear impact on eBay's adult-only content," said Mark Gambale, an analyst who covers the online auction industry for Gomez. "I think it's a first step toward house cleaning."

"Mature Audiences"
Under the new policy, eBay will change the name of the section in which sellers can list sexually oriented material from "Adult Only" to "Mature Audiences." The company already prohibits members from entering the area unless they can prove via a credit card or other identification that they are at least 18 years old.

The online auction giant will require that sellers place almost all videos, magazines, comic books and artwork that contain full-frontal nudity or sexually arousing material in the new "Mature Audiences" category. Additionally, eBay will restrict how sellers can list or describe the material, prohibiting the use of profanity, sexually explicit images or auction titles using "XX" or above.

The new policy would also ban the sale of used underwear on the site and any hidden camera or "amateur" videos of sexual activity. eBay said it plans to develop a search engine that only searches for material within the "Mature Audiences" section and also said it will enforce its policies more consistently.

The message said eBay would increase the restrictions if necessary "if the new policies are not quickly and consistently adopted."

eBay not alone
eBay is only the latest online marketplace to confront questions about pornography. Soon after Amazon.com launched its zShops storefronts, customers found weapons, sadomasochistic equipment and pornographic videos on the site, some of which violated Amazon's rules. And a system problem on Yahoo last fall removed a verification system and allowed all auction members to see pornographic images and listings.

Despite eBay's efforts to clarify its rules, the site's members who posted messages on the discussion boards at AuctionWatch.com and Honesty.com expressed confusion over what could be sold under the new policy.

Jen Hassler said she sells used clothes, including lingerie, on eBay.

"I gather what they are really trying to prevent is strange fetish listings," Hassler said. But she said eBay's attempt to ban such listings was "inappropriate." "They're limiting something that doesn't seem to skirt the edge of legality. It's a moral issue as opposed to a legal issue."

Other sellers say not being allowed to post graphic pictures or graphic descriptions will hurt their sales.

"They're telling me that I can sell the content, but I can't describe it," Eskdale said. "If I can't show the picture, it's not going to sell. Why should I waste my money in terms of listing it."

Some sellers said they were pleased with the new policy. Steve Mills, a portrait photographer in Hermiston, Ore., sells drawings of nudes on eBay. Mills said he has been uncomfortable listing his drawings in the "Adult Only" section because of the nature of the other materials inside it.

"I'm glad to see this happen," he said.

Since last year, eBay has banned sales of firearms and ammunition, alcohol and tobacco, and some music and software. The company has also restricted the sale of material that promotes hate groups, such as the Ku Klux Klan and the Aryan Nation.