The recent policy change by eBay (Nasdaq: EBAY) that will give the auction giant more control over online contacts between eBay users was greeted with both optimism and anger in the Web auction community.
Earlier this week, eBay announced that any users not involved in a particular auction would only be able to contact each other by sending messages through the eBay system.
eBay said the change, which is set to take effect in the middle of February, comes in response to community concerns about the harvesting of e-mail addresses from its system, apractice also known as “data mining.” Often, after e-mail addresses are lifted from the eBay system, the auction users are sent spam, or unsolicited commercial e-mails by software pirates and other non-eBay sellers.
“It’s a very good first start,” Peter Beruk, vice president in charge of anti-piracy for the Software & Information Industry Association (SIIA), told the E-Commerce Times on Thursday. However, Beruk added that he was “a little hesitant about the ultimate success of the measure.”
eBay’s announcement said that “Spam-related issues are a top cause of customer complaints and we are dedicated to fixing the problem. In addition, these changes will give us the opportunity to inform you about eBay’s policy regarding offers to buy and sell outside of eBay based on information obtained from eBay listings or bidding activity.”
Last week, the SIIA took action against two software pirates who allegedly used data mining to ferret out the names of eBay users who had bid on software being sold at auction. Once the pirates had harvested the names, they contacted the bidders to offer them discount prices on the same software.
Under eBay’s new policy, sellers will still be able to obtain the e-mail addresses of bidders on their auctions, and winning bidders will be able to contact sellers directly. However, all other contact will have to be sent via eBay’s new “Contact an eBay Member” feature.
As another precaution, eBay users are also being discouraged from using their e-mail addresses as their eBay identification.
Beruk is concerned that under the new policy, it would be possible for a software pirate to set up a fake auction at eBay solely for the purpose of obtaining e-mail addresses. Once the phony auctioneers obtained the e-mail addresses, they would be able to send bidders solicitations for pirated software.
Rosalinda Baldwin, editor of the Auction Guild, told the E- Commerce Times that the new policy might also make harder for buyers to detect shill bidding, which occurs when sellers conspire to artificially inflate auction prices.
“Since eBay benefits financially in the short term by shilling, as it brings higher prices, and therefore higher final value fees, this is a win-win situation for eBay,” she said.
Critics of the new policy believe the only entity it will protect is eBay, with Baldwin saying that “the only protection it might provide [users] is from bottom feeders.”
However, Baldwin believes that eBay’s move is “absolutely” just another attempt by eBay to crack down on offline sales between members. In December, the auction powerhouse announced it would begin enforcing a ban on offline deals between members.
“The only purpose of such a move would be to try to control all communications between users, to prevent users from buying and selling off eBay,” Baldwin said.
She added, “The problem is that they want to control all sales, as if they had an exclusive agent agreement with every person — buyer or seller — who ever used their site.”
A Matter of Trust
“I trust eBay to do whatever they can to make the most money in the shortest time,” Baldwin said. “Anything that allows them to do that, they will do. I expect them to use this system to maximize their profits, without any respect to privacy, First Amendment rights, spam restriction, or anything else.”
However, others believe the new policy will help auction sellers.
“This will allow the sellers who actually spend money to list items a fighting chance at a sale,” one AuctionWatch message poster wrote. “This is a positive change for honest sellers.”
End of Harvest?
Anecdotal evidence from the AuctionWatch message board would seem to support the theory that the change will cut down on data harvesting.
One user said that within minutes of placing a bid on a copy of Adobe Acrobat, he received his first spam offering to sell him a “backup” copy of the software for US$20.
Over the course of the next 10 days, the user reported receiving more than 50 e-mails, “offering me every kind of illegal, bootlegged and pirated software you could imagine.”