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October 18, 2011

~ smut! (brilliant essay on beginning of eBay censorship)


SmUT
on eBay and a different kind of "Dirty War"

(originally posted July 2004)


I. sleazBay
June 2001 marked the first time I noticed eBay shutting down smut auctions. The venerable seller known as sleazBay had listed several gay paperbacks from the 1960's. His auction descriptions reflected the books themselves — absurd, humorous, fun. I'd planned on winning several titles only to find they'd vanished long before the scheduled item ending. When an item was deemed inappropriate by eBay, the listing simply disappeared from the system. The only trace left was a blackmark on the offending seller's record. Sufficiently outraged, sleazBay posted a piece about the experience on his About Me page (subsequently removed by eBay). SleazBay's page was my first introduction to eBay's "judicial" machinations (aptly referred to as "the shadow"); three years and several ended listings later, it's still right on the money: "If you are interested in having sleaze remain on eBay, you should understand that what is happening with sleazBay will happen to another seller when I'm worn out and the shadow's bandwidth reaches the next target. Every regular seller will be targeted in an attempt to run out one seller after another. And this is just the first stage of the campaign to remove all sleaze from eBay." Stage two came in October 2003 when the wildly popular auction payment service PayPal — exactly one year after its acquisition by eBay — began prohibiting payments for any item listed in eBay's "Mature Audience" section. While this priggish PayPal policy seemed inevitable, the decision was most certainly pushed forward by a lawsuit filed against eBay a few months prior.


II. A Renaissance Man
A collection of 50's and 60's bondage mags landed in my lap. Over the years, a pal had accumulated a substantial stash of erotica, paperbacks, and just plain porn. The time had come to sell, and as usual I was happy to oblige. Knowing my smut collecting interest cut-off year is 1969, the original owner sent only the earlier publications while he hung onto the later, raunchier stuff. Many of the mags included early illustrations by the masterful Eric Stanton and the less talented but beloved Gene Bilbrew (just my opinion, folks). The low-rent photos mags were so tame as to be laughable... not so much as a pubic hair in sight! Possibly decried as an outrage when published, most of these would scarcely qualify for PG-13 these days; for this reason, I opted to list in the Vintage Paperbacks category circa April 2003.


III. The Shadow Resurfaces
The not-so-cheap thrills (several winning bids creeped toward three figures) for collectors would soon end. The first smut auctions chosen for removal were issues of Whip & Rope, a self-described "monthly magazine of bondage & discipline letters, true experiences, fantasies, lavishly illustrated". Perhaps, like "pornography", "lavish" meant something different back then, because each issue contained only a handful of inexpertly taken photos. The first issue is pictured above. The lion's share of photos depict such timeless themes as girls spanking each other or men getting what they surely deserve: a hair pull, a slap, a heel. All subjects remain partially if not fully clothed. An issue of Pleasure Parade listing was also closed.

Unbeknownst to me, eBay had just implemented a new policy prohibiting any reference to sadomasochism including but not — I would soon find out— limited to "s&m", "sm", and "bdsm". Fine. Since I wasn't using my English major for anything else, conjuring up some different words to describe the mags and entice buyers would be rather easy. And so I continued listing in Vintage Paperbacks and avoided the verboten terms. Or so I thought. Not long after I would have another auction shut down (after a move into the Adult category) because the word "spanking" appeared in the item description. My request for a complete list of prohibited words went unanswered. In June 2004, another eBay seller had an auction shut down because of the book title Punk Spunk. According to some anonymous drone in eBay's decency department, the "spunk" reference violates eBay policy by "featuring semen or other bodily fluids". And this was in the Mature Audiences section!

IV. Mature Audiences
I'd been trying to avoid listing in the Mature Audiences categories simply because these categories receive FAR less buyer traffic than the appropriate General (unrestricted) categories. In addition, the MA categories were not searchable (though eventually eBay would make them so). In short, listing in MA meant taking less money for no reason other than someone out there found old bondage mags offensive. A few months later, eBay implemented the single biggest drawback of all: prohibiting PayPal payments for any Mature Audience listings. Unable to take advantage of PayPal's convenience, many potential buyers (especially overseas buyers) simply don't bother bidding.

The move to Mature Audiences would, however, be forced on me as eBay's "Trust & Safety Department" continued to end my auctions. The new reason given for ended listings was that they "contained adult material that is inappropriate for eBay's general categories". What seemed to be getting me in trouble were not some of the more over-the-top Bill Ward illustrations, but the tame, posed photos. Perhaps the drawings were considered more as "art" by the eBay censors. Your guess is as good as mine. And so I began listing in the Mature Audiences section the next day.

For an eBay user to access MA listings (which show up as "Hidden - Requires Adult Verification" if one does a seller search), he or she must first sign off on the following Adult Login notice:



Terms of Use
Mature Audiences Category
("Terms of Use")

You must be a responsible adult over the age of 18 (or the age of consent in the jurisdiction from which this site is being accessed) to view the Adults-Only category pages. Materials available in this category include graphic visual depictions and descriptions of nudity and sexual activity. Federal, state or local laws may prohibit visiting this adult category if you are under 18 years of age. By entering your User ID and Password to access this site, to list an item, or to bid on an item in this category, you are making the following statements:

  1. I am a member of the eBay community and I will follow the eBay User Agreement governing my use of the eBay web site.
  2. I am willing to provide eBay with my valid credit card number and expiration date, which will be left on file with eBay in order to verify that I am at least 18 years of age.
  3. I will not permit any person(s) under 18 years of age to have access to any of the materials contained within this site.
  4. I am voluntarily choosing to access this category, because I want to view, read and/or hear the various materials that are available.
  5. I understand and agree to abide by the standards and laws of the community in which I live or from which I am accessing this site.
  6. By entering my User ID and Password and viewing any part of this adult category, I agree that I shall not hold eBay or its employees responsible for any materials located in the adult category, and I waive all claims against eBay relating to materials found at this site.
  7. If I use these services in violation of these Terms and Use, I understand I may be in violation of local and/or federal laws and am solely responsible for my actions.
  8. I am an adult, at least 18 years of age, and I have a legal right to possess adult material in my community.
  9. I do not find pornographic images of nude adults, adults engaged in sexual acts or other sexual material to be offensive or objectionable.
  10. I will exit from this site immediately if I am in any way offended by the sexual nature of any materials on this site.
  11. By entering my User ID and Password at the bottom of these Terms of Use, and by listing, bidding an item, or entering the adult site, I agree to abide by these terms.
If you do not agree to these terms, click on the back button of your browser and exit this adult category page.



Now, having actually read the above and browsed the other MA offerings, I foolishly assumed my troubles were over. After all, people looking at these items were clearly of age, were clearly seeking the items found in these categories, and were obliged to log off immediately if they found themselves suddenly offended. Less than one day after my move into the MA categories, I found my listings under fire again. This time it wasn't that I'd used forbidden words; it wasn't that I'd listed adult items in the general categories; this time I'd listed obscene material according to my ended item notice.

Are you ready to see what filth brought down the wrath of eBay on me? Prepare yourself...



That's right... issue #20 of FANTASIA published in 1962. Look at those menacing smiles!



It's hard to believe these pictures are posed.



Have I already mentioned the timeless theme pictured here?


I would later re-list the above magazine in the MA section under "Magazines: Fetish" only to have it ended again. This time, I managed to hit on at least one newly added Prohibited Word in this short fragment: "Approximately 40 pages of non-stop bondage and spanking and fetish." Yes, the word "spanking" could no longer be used on eBay. Another seller e-mailed to tell me he'd had a listing removed because he included the word "facial". "Gangbang" apparently got the ax, too. I was starting to think eBay censors had dirtier minds than me. Compare this ended notice to the others received only two weeks earlier. The list of prohibited items is not to be missed! eBay suggests reviewing the list for a "better explanation of what is prohibited in our Mature Audiences section". Being able to read specific MA guidelines is certainly "better" than being left to guess them. Sellers are not privy to additions or revisions to eBay's MA policy. When eBay ended my listings for using "S&M" and "BDSM" in the descriptions, I'd specifically requested a list of prohibited words. No reply was sent. Now, a couple weeks later, I'd been cited a second time for using Prohibited Words (this time "spanking"). Imagine driving across a nation with no posted speed limits and getting tickets along the way for driving too fast or too slow. Hey pardner, welcome to eBay country!

V. Confound. Frustrate. Suspend.
With multiple instances of ended items on my account, I assumed suspension was imminent. It's not that I hadn't read every single word of eBay policies. It's not that I had some burning desire to be suspended. It's just that eBay made sure to leave plenty of wriggle room for policy enforcement. When I'd fix a listing (say, by removing all references to "s&m"), the item would be ended for another reason (say, listed in the general categories when, according to eBay, it should be in the Mature Audience section). When I moved the item to the Mature Audience category, the same item would be deemed "obscene". Needless to say, the strikes against my account mounted quickly with such procedures in place. Sometimes just the "offending" auction would be ended. Sometimes every auction listed at the same time would be ended even if only one item was deemed Prohibited ("As there are several violations of this policy on your account, we have ended all of your currently listed auctions."). Was that one strike against me? Or was it two? Or twelve? How many "chances" does eBay bestow on the lowly recidivist? It's guaranteed the seller won't find out until it's too late. My suspension came three days after my previous warning on June 2, 2003. The reason given for my items being ended was I'd been suspended. The reason given for my suspension was that I'd been previously warned. Unlike with the cassettes fiasco, the suspension was only temporary (30 days). And so I called it a day on peddling 60's bondage mags. I waited the required month and then requested reinstatement and turned back to the occasional batch of 60's lesbian and gay paperbacks. The progressive Trust & Safety department had finally concluded "Gay is OK".

With each ended listing and every lexing of eBay moral muscle, sellers like myself and so many others get put into a smaller and smaller box, hesitant to list so much as an illustration that shows cleavage lest it get me kicked off eBay. My ability to sell depends on which Trust & Safety square happens to be reading when someone (perhaps a competing seller or perhaps a clean-up-42nd-Street crusader) sends in a complaint. eBay will always emphasize that they only act based on user complaints which may be true initially, but those reports are followed with zeal that would make J. Edgar Hoover proud! Honestly, I found it all baffling... if a potential buyer must acknowledge that "materials available in this category include graphic visual depictions and descriptions of nudity and sexual activity" then why was a seller prohibited from listing, say, "close-up images depicting only genitalia"? If a "Mature Audiences : Magazines : Fetish" category exists, what kind of publications — if not bondage mags — do eBay authorities expect to find there? Echoes of the FBI's Louie, Louie investigation hang in the air above the Trust & Safety cubicles.

I began to wonder what, exactly, is eBay's agenda here? Sure, I understood eBay has one singular motivation: make money, lots of it. Everyone selling on eBay presumably has much the same motivation. In keeping with their pursuit of the almighty dollar, eBay is a world class leader in covering its own corporate ass and keeping users at arm's length (think NBA length arms). To that end, taking preventative measures against lawsuits (e.g. the Adult Log In) is sensible corporate policy. I can even empathize with keeping a comfortable corporate distance from users... my experience as a seller tells me eBay deals with plenty of idiots. But what is eBay gaining from capricious enforcement and overwrought policies on "adult items"? My assumption is that smut sellers are considered a liability for eBay's bottom line — the fewer purveyors of filth, the better. I'm sure eBay consultants have already calculated potential profit of dildos and nudey mag sales versus potential loss from bad PR (hear the outcry: "the same site where your child browses Beanie Babies also sells bondage gear!"). While individuals built eBay, it seems the company is increasingly looking for business from larger, corporate interests. Want a piece of those Disney coffers? Better keep it clean. eBay's constant drone about "community" is its singlemost deceptive and hypocritical practice. Aside from its stated Community Values, "community" also implies equal opportunities, fair and open discussions, actions based on law and not moralistic whim. And yet nameless vigilantes and secret tribunals rule eBay. eBay would argue they're a private club able to make up their own rules. eBay would argue smut dealers have a separate but equal venue for selling. I guess it's "love it or leave it", right? Once again, eBay acts as if they're doing sellers a favor by allowing even a limited amount of filth to be listed. How meaningless and hollow are statements like "We recognize and respect everyone as a unique individual" and "We believe everyone has something to contribute" when a company goes so out of its way to harass and marginalize its users? I wonder if it's OK to say "lip service" in the MA categories? I bet not.



THE END

(of the smut saga and eBay battles, I thought — but then The Space Giants landed)

via negative-feedback.com ...»See Ya