Those easy, breezy first few years of online selling were a time of unbridled commercialism, entrepreneurial mayhem and a general free-for-all.
Now that electronic commerce is entering a period of refinement, not only are entire businesses shutting their online doors, but individual products are becoming obsolete.
Making headlines this month, once again, is a class of merchandise that has come to be known as “hate merchandise.”
Sending a clear message that it will no longer tolerate the wares of intolerance, online auction powerhouse eBay (Nasdaq: EBAY) announced that it was expanding its guidelines prohibiting the sale of items “that promote or glorify hatred, violence or racial intolerance.”
It is likely that many American consumers agree that eBay’s move signifies noble intentions, but raises a number of questions.
What Is Intolerance?
First question: who decides what items do or do not fit into the category of hate?
The argument can be made that eBay and other merchants who limit the sale of such items are effectively re-interpreting the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
For example, if an eBay seller wants to offer photographs of lynchings taken in the 19th century southern U.S., would eBay consider those items hate material or historical documents? Would everyone at eBay agree? Would everyone who uses eBay agree?
A number of common household items might indirectly relate to this country’s heritage of racism. In the South, it is not uncommon to see “black mammy” artifacts on display in kitchens, including cookie jars, spoon holders and such.
Some people have entire collections of “ethnic memorabilia,” including salt and pepper shakers that feature such things as smiling black children eating watermelon, or vases that depict black minstrels smiling gamely for their mostly white audience.
What do we do about these items? Each relates in one way or another to a culture that promoted racial intolerance and stereotypes.
Politics vs. History
It’s safe to say that in some cases, online merchants will run into trouble trying to decide which items have more to do with political statements and which are merely historical relics or collector’s items.
eBay’s announcement allows sellers of certain German and Nazi memorabilia, such as coins and stamps, to continue to market their wares. Also allowed are “war documentaries or documentary photos portraying victims of war or violence.”
Such material is often used for educational purposes, so it is to eBay’s credit that the company has not moved into the area of unnecessary censorship.
However, some of the items on the new list of banned items are questionable. Is it up to the online auctioneer to prohibit the sale of some authentic German WWII memorabilia, for example? How easily can eBay make the distinction between what should be permitted and what shouldn’t be?
And although many citizens may disagree with the Ku Klux Klan’s basic philosophy, it is still legal, albeit not popular, in this country to sell items that bear symbols of the organization. Why, then, has eBay chosen to restrict sales of these items?
Rather than operating as a gateway to an inventory of items promoting white supremacy, Nazism and anti-Semitism, some might argue that such items are essential reminders of how much carnage can result from the extremes of human intolerance.
All of the items eBay decided to restrict have long been available through any number of channels offline. The Internet is nothing more than a new vehicle for educators and collectors to purchase them.
It is unfortunate that promoters of hate and intolerance are among the customer base for these items. However, not selling such items on legitimate Web sites may force the items to less reputable sites, increase their value because of their scarcity and ultimately cause them to command premium prices.
Politically Correct Bedlam
Once that happens, fringe group extremists are the most likely customers. Those who would use such items for historical documentation or educational purposes are less likely to scour underground Web sites.
Restricting the sale of controversial merchandise online is risky business and a direct result of a politically correct culture gone awry. Since when is it up to a retailer to dictate morality to the mass consumer base and thereby limit freedom of expression?
And once this becomes the norm among e-tailers, what other personal freedoms may be at risk?
Will Internet service providers suddenly issue a list of words that cannot be used in e-mail transmissions?Will content providers decide certain spicy topics are taboo? Will online sellers of visual erotica be banned?
What about the misogynistic lyrics common to contemporary hip-hop music? Should we ban those from the Internet as well. Perhaps in doing so, the rules we write will also silence domestic violence victims and counselors.
Freedom is not something to be compromised for the sake of cultural change. Once one form of freedom is tailored down, the question becomes: what type of freedom will be taken away next?
Note: The opinions expressed by our columnists are their own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the E-Commerce Times or its management.