Imagine a country where there is no rule of law, where you might be scooped off the street without warning, put before a kangaroo court and sentenced to life in prison without parole and without right of appeal. You have no idea of the charge against you because no one in authority will tell you. You are innocent of any crime, except you don’t know what your crime is; the full might of the law has been brought down on your head and you have nowhere to turn.
What if this imaginary country was not in fact a nation state but a large, wealthy and powerful company? What if it was eBay?
Recently, I was asked by a friend if, in my capacity as a serious amateur photographer, I would look over and value some vintage cameras and lenses that he had inherited. After a little research I quickly ascertained that they were eminently sellable and that the best marketplace for them was eBay.
As my friend didn’t have an eBay account, I agreed to use my — mostly dormant — account to sell his pieces. I successfully sold an ancient cinematic lens to begin with and, happy with the result, decided to follow up with the more valuable of the two cameras, an early 1950s Nikon. Not being a regular habitué of eBay, I didn’t realize that there was a monthly limit in place and the balance left after the first sale left me with too little on my limit to proceed to the next.
Not a problem. I went into their chat service and passed a very easy 10 minutes with a chap calling himself Gerald during which time he explained the rules, helped me link my PayPal account to my eBay account and satisfactorily ended with a 20-fold increase in my cash limit and an allowance of 100 items per month (far more than I needed).
Within seconds of finishing with Gerald — each of us wishing the other a very pleasant evening — I received three emails in quick succession. The first contained the transcript of my chat (a useful service that actually I wish other corporates would copy); the second informed me of my limit increases; and the third informed me that I was banned for life:
‘We have reviewed the activity we have seen connected to your account. As a result, your account has been suspended because we believe this activity presents a risk to our eBay community. We do not make this decision lightly. Building a trusted marketplace where people around the world can buy and sell safely is our first priority.‘This suspension is permanent and means that you will not be able to participate in any buying or selling activities on eBay. In addition, any other accounts that you own, or that are associated with this account, will also be suspended.‘We regret the frustration or inconvenience this may cause you. However, there is no appeal for this decision.‘If you have questions about this message, please click Help at the top of most eBay pages.’
Huh?! Surely some mistake. As that email came from a ‘no-reply’ address, I emailed customer support. A few minutes later in came the answer:
‘Thank you for writing to eBay Customer Service regarding your account status. I understand the importance for you to know the reason why your account got suspended. Rest assured that I am here to clarify things for you.
‘I’ve completely reviewed your account and I can confirm that this has been suspended due to our eBay’s User Agreement Policy. At this stage, I’m afraid that your account reinstatement may not be possible. Please be advised that we’re only doing this as we want to keep eBay a safe and enjoyable place to buy and sell. We may suspend an account if we have cause for concern, and/or if we’re unable to verify any information you’ve provided to us.
‘Due to eBay policy, we cannot provide you with more specific information. This will still be the same information we are going to discuss even if you contact us again.
‘I know this isn’t the response you were hoping for, but I trust I’ve been able to explain our position clearly that the decision cannot be reversed.’
What the hell had I done? I googled ‘eBay suspensions’ and discovered that your crimes need to be up there with hate speech (no), passing off counterfeit goods (no) or misappropriation of a registered trademark (no). I sent a text to the person who had bought the lens. Had he received it and was he happy? Yes, came back the reply, all good and no problems. So if it wasn’t any of those, then what was it?
OK, I thought, so let’s follow their suggestion and click on ‘Help’. A small problem here: Help takes you to your log-in page and, guess what, I can’t log in. I found a phone number for customer service which, when you call it, tells you that the service is no longer in operation. I found another number for technical support, with a voice-activated menu. I had to say my postal code and, on the strength of that alone, the robot recording told me my account was blocked — yes, I know — and diverted me back to the message of the first phone number. I found an eBay community forum online, not realizing it was run by eBay. I explained my predicament and hit post, and guess what — I can’t post unless I log into my account.
So here I am, tried in absentia for I know not what. No recourse to appeal, no means of getting hold of anyone who knows anything. And what now? I really have no idea. Do I care greatly if I am banned for life from eBay for reasons I can’t explain? Not particularly from a practical point of view. Yes, from an emotional and intellectual point of view, very much. I do very definitely care that, minutes before my expulsion, my eBay account was linked to my PayPal account at their request and, by the way, the funds due to me from the sale of the lens are sitting there with a ‘Blocked by eBay’ flag on them, which for the moment leaves me with no lens and no money. I don’t know if this will have knock-on effects with PayPal but I have worried about this and everything up to and including my credit rating.
What I really care about is that eBay has shown itself to be the corporate equivalent of a lousy undemocratic state. Its behavior is demagogic, draconian and disrespectful. It is a law unto itself and though the implications of my woes — a couple of unsold cameras — are not vast in the greater scheme of things, I find myself converting to activism against the power of the unchecked corporate machine.
This article was originally published in The Spectator’s UK magazine. Subscribe to the US edition here.