Online isolationists

April 26, 2000|By Jim Mann

WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON- The message that appeared on eBay's open bulletin board in February was joltingly simple and hate-filled:

"STUPID FOREIGNER. AUCTION SAID USA BIDDERS ONLY. CAN'T YOU READ????????"

But that message from a grocery store owner in a small Tennessee town, who also sells books and toys by mail, isn't the most offensive that can be found on the global auction system that eBay runs over the Internet. Some of the e-mails that individual eBay customers in Canada, Britain and New Zealand have been receiving are even more insulting.

"It has been my experience that foreigners don't read too well," an English-speaking customer in London was told. "A picture is all you look at."

Finally, Jill Stephenson, a Canadian schoolteacher who lives on a farm near Calgary, took umbrage. Ms. Stephenson has been campaigning, without success, to have eBay act against blatantly anti-foreign sentiments. "To police offensive behavior would not be difficult," Ms. Stephenson argues.

EBay, the online marketplace, provides a venue where even small-town America can do business with the rest of the world. Sellers offer baseball cards, Beanie Babies, clothes and trinkets at auction, sometimes making deals for as little as $2 or $3.

It's not just Americans who are bidding. People from other countries do, too. And there's the problem. While these small-time international trade deals often go smoothly, they sometimes go awry.

The stumbling blocks are the same ones that affect much bigger transnational business transactions: currency disputes and shipping costs. Before a $15 T-shirt can be sold to a customer in London, the parties to the deal have to figure out how to convert British pounds into dollars and how to pay for the postage across the Atlantic.

Larger U.S. companies learned a long time ago to overcome these obstacles. But some of eBay's sellers in small-town America are not so experienced -- or tolerant.

"It's a question of money. It's not a question of we don't like Canadians, or we don't like Italians," explains Randy Wright, the seller from Tennessee Ridge, Tenn., who posted the "STUPID FOREIGNER" message on eBay. When people overseas buy the items he offers for sale, "There's just a lot of extra work I have to do."

As a result, Mr. Wright now posts a big notice on eBay. "Please Read Before Bidding," it declares. "USA Bidders Only. I Do Not Ship Internationally."

Despite this warning, Mr. Wright complains, he has received at least 500 overseas bids so far this year. And each time he doesn't complete a sale because the winning bid is from outside the United States, he loses the 50 cents or $1 it costs him to list an item on eBay.

The obstacles are not insuperable. Ms. Stephenson points out that she offers payment in U.S. dollars and an address in Colorado where the books she's buying can be shipped. Yet Wright maintains that even a payment in U.S. currency from a Canadian bank can lead to delays in getting his money.

Mr. Wright does not apologize for his nasty eBay postings. "I'll be honest with you. I do get insulting sometimes," he said in an interview. "And I don't give a rat's ass what they think."

Two months ago, in response to complaints from U.S. civil rights groups, eBay agreed to prohibit the sale of hate-group memorabilia, such as items promoting the Nazis or the Ku Klux Klan. But eBay now says it won't try to ban or police anti-foreign messages.

"These are one-to-one communications taking place between private parties," says Kevin Pursglove, a spokesman for eBay. "We may frown on the tone that any one user takes toward a fellow user, but these are private communications."

That's not always true. The anti-foreign messages appear not merely in one-to-one e-mails but on eBay's public "feedback" boards, where many other eBay participants see them.

Mr. Pursglove says that if potential customers don't like a seller's messages, they should "stop doing business with that individual" and look to buy from someone else on eBay.

Of course, non-American customers have another option, too. They could leave eBay. That's the risk the company runs if it allows anti-foreign sentiments to proliferate. Competitors to eBay are opening in countries ranging from Germany to China.

"EBay is just a hobby for me, and this took the fun out of it," says Bruce Burfield, a New Zealander who was called a "moron" and a "dumb foreigner" when he tried to bid for items on eBay.

EBay seems to want to have it both ways -- to hold itself out as a global company while also allowing some sellers to declare they'll do business only with Americans and to insult people who live outside the United States.

Mr. Wright thinks he has a solution. He wants eBay to come up with computer coding to enable sellers to cut off overseas bidders.

This is one of America's oldest fantasies, the idea of screening out the rest of the world. The idea hasn't worked before, and it certainly won't work in the age of the Internet.

Jim Mann covers foreign policy for the Los Angeles Times.

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