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Hot on the Web

eBay's abusive behavior – and finding alternatives

This column originally ran in ComputorEdge on November 12, 2004
(Issue 2246, The Seedy Side of the Web)

When eBay first came on the scene in the late 1990s, it created an entire new segment of the economy. By giving individuals the same international reach as multinational conglomerates, it changed the way used goods are bought and sold in this country.

Especially in the area of collectibles, eBay made it profitable for small shops that might not be able to exist even in the largest of cities to find a large enough customer base to stay in business.

And for collectors, too, eBay was a godsend. Take me – I collect reel to reel tapes. The local used record store might have a half-dozen at any one time, so outside subscribing to Goldmine magazine, finding a specific album in r2r format was nearly impossible. With eBay, I can browse weekly and over months, find just about any album from the 1950s-'70s on reel to reel.

In the intervening years, eBay has become one of the Web's great success stories, rivaling Yahoo! and Google as a company that created a successful online business model.

But with success comes power, and with power comes hubris.

And so now eBay is a massive corporation, a near-monopoly in the arena of online auctions, and it is becoming less and less user-friendly – to the point that exploring alternatives to eBay is becoming necessary for more and more people.

Out of control

As mentioned, I've been active on eBay almost since the beginning. I've been a member since September 1998. While not a big presence on eBay (about 250 total transactions), I've certainly been around long enough to see the changes success has brought.

The past few months, I've been re-painting and rearranging my apartment. As usual in such cases, I've run across a lot of stuff I no longer use, need or want. Much of it goes to Goodwill, where it will not only find new life but also raise money for a very worthy cause. Others, though, seem likely candidates to help pay down my bills.

A few years back, loyal readers may remember my review of Sun's Solaris operating system for the Intel platform, and its viability as an alternative to Windows. I had actually purchased Solaris 7 for Intel from Sun under some discount program they had to try to build a buzz for their PC clone presence; cost me about $70 total, I believe. The next year, when Solaris 8 for Intel came out, I also purchased that.

Used them, reviewed them – and eventually uninstalled them. I have Red Hat Linux on the box that used to run Solaris now.

And so I have these two very nice packages of Solaris I thought I'd sell. Listed them on eBay, and ended up selling them for about $70, or half what I originally invested.

The day the auction closed, though, I received a very nasty form e-mail from eBay, saying they'd cancelled the auction because Sun had filed a copyright complaint against me.

Note that the auction was cancelled before I had a chance to respond – hardly a fair or equitable system.

And this is legal software that I purchased in good faith, and resold – all fully legal in California.

My guess is that the license on that discount package I bought contains some "no reselling" clause, and this is why Sun is claiming I'm violating their copyright.

But merely writing an end user license does not make it legal, nor enforceable – and eBay has both a legal and moral obligation to hear both parties' side in any dispute.

Unfortunately, there seems to be no manner in which someone in my position can file an appeal – I searched high and low on eBay's site, and found nothing. I did fill out a general complaint form, and was promised a response within 24 hours. That's come and gone. I also replied to the Sun contact e-mail address provided in eBay's form e-mail – never heard back from Sun, either.

And the presumption of guilt was equally offensive – after telling me the auction was cancelled and the buyer notified that they did not have to pay me (although they still did), eBay included this gratuitous warning: "If you relist this or any other similar items on eBay, your account likely will be suspended."


Needless to say, I won't be selling on eBay any longer. Which is too bad, because they do provide the largest possible audience for your listing. But that kind of poor customer service and roughshod indifference to my legal rights simply does not deserve further support.

Yahoo! Auctions is probably the next best bet, and the one I'll be trying first. If you already have a Yahoo! account, you're good to go as soon as you enter some credit card info. You can also use Yahoo's PayDirect service instead of eBay's PayPal. Signing up for that was also easy.

What Yahoo! Auctions doesn't have is the number of people that eBay has – it's probably on a scale of 1:10 between Yahoo! and eBay.

But for those who insist on honesty and courtesy, Yahoo! may be preferable.