Watchdogs rap eBay policy changes

The online auction giant updates its privacy policy and user agreements, making it easier for the company to disclose customers' personal information or to ban people from the site.

4 min read
eBay is updating its privacy policy and user agreements, making it easier for the company to disclose members' personal information or to ban people from the site.

The changes, which the online auction giant announced Monday, will go into effect March 19 for all consumers who register with the site after that date, and on April 19 for all other people.

In statements to customers, eBay said the changes reflect the evolution of its Web site and are based in part on user feedback.

"Based on some questions and ambiguity surrounding some of our policies and the integration of numerous new services on the site, we decided to update the user agreement," the company said in a list of frequently asked questions about the agreement. "This agreement clarifies and improves your rights and responsibilities while using our services."

The changes are part of an annual review of the company's user agreement and privacy policy, eBay spokesman Kevin Pursglove said.

"If you look back, every year since I've been here, we conduct a review of our privacy policy and user agreement and make any changes that cropped up over the last year or so," he said.

But some privacy and auction watchdogs decried the changes, calling them anything but routine.

As it is written, eBay's new privacy policy would allow the company to disclose customers' personal information to just about anyone, said Jason Catlett, president of Junkbusters. "It was a bad privacy policy before, and it's an even worse policy now."

Meanwhile, eBay's new user agreement could allow the company to change its rules immediately by posting a note anywhere on the site--even on scrolling chat boards where the messages disappear after a certain time, said Rosalinda Baldwin, editor of The Auction Guild, an online newsletter. "They've now given themselves again the license to do anything at any time they want."

eBay periodically updates both its user agreement and privacy policy to reflect new corporate stances on issues such as items that are permitted on the site and how it will use information given by its members. Some of the updates are routine, including one proposed change that clarifies that eBay's privacy policy also covers its Half.com and eBay Stores sites.

Privacy groups criticized eBay last year when it reset the personalized settings for some 6 million of its customers. Saying that it had discovered a bug in its registration process, the company changed the default answer from "no" to "yes" for questions such as "Do you want to receive calls from telemarketers?" and forced customers to go back and reset their preferences.

The gatekeepers
One of the changes to eBay's user agreement involves the circumstances under which the company may suspend a member or remove a seller's listings. Currently, the company warns customers that, among other reasons, they can be suspended if their actions will cause a legal liability to the company, other customers or themselves. Under the new user agreement, the company can also suspend customers if eBay believes their actions may cause a financial loss to the company, other customers or themselves.

eBay does not set a limit for how large the financial loss has to be or whether actions taken off eBay might be taken into account. That worries Baldwin, who notes that the wording of the agreement would allow eBay to base its decision on the perception that someone might cause a loss, not the reality of an actual loss. Under that reading, the company might be able to ban customers for negative statements they made on a chat board on or off eBay, she said.

"It's too broad," she said. "If they are talking about hacking, then they should say so. As it is, it's a license to ban anybody for anything that eBay feels may cause them a financial loss."

Meanwhile eBay has changed its privacy policy to warn members that it may be more willing to give out their personal information to other users or companies. Previously, eBay warned members that it would give out information about them in connection with government investigations or inquiries by companies that felt their copyrights had been violated.

Under the new policy, eBay warned it could give out information "as we in our sole discretion determine necessary or appropriate to maintain a level of trust and safety in our community and to enforce our user agreement, privacy policy and any posted policies or rules applicable to services you use through our site."

Junkbusters' Catlett says that's going too far.

"They've written in for themselves the right to disclose pretty much anything they feel like to any of their users," he said.

One eBay seller said she wasn't happy with the proposed changes. "The problem is, I don't know if there's anything that can be done about it," said Roanoke, Texas, resident Connie Lawrence.

Members who do not agree with the changes can cancel their eBay registration, the company said.