Tuesday, August 21, 2012

eBay's Recent Decision: A Ban on "Selling Speech"?

Recently, eBay updated its terms of service. That in itself isn't unusual, but one of the newest edicts was:
The following items are being added to the prohibited items list: advice; spells; curses; hexing; conjuring; magic; prayers; blessing services; magic potions; healing sessions; [and] work from home businesses & information.
The full eBay update may be read here.

An editor-friend from a good-sized publishing company said,
"It's one thing for towns and cities to legislate this type of thing, but an entire user-to-user based selling engine to ban it? This is insane!"
I had the same reaction, at least initially. My first thought was that the new ruling seemed to discriminate against a specific religious group, i.e., Pagans, by denying the saleability of many items and processes that they/we often consider an important part of our spiritual practices. "Makes me wonder if other religious/spiritual items are verboten, e.g., rosaries, christening gowns, mezuzahs, prayers, etc.," I wrote on my Facebook page. I even tagged a Pagan friend, Charlie, who I know makes a lot of sales over the Web and through eBay. Her response surprised me. She said,
"It's been a long time coming. Too many charlatans out there spoiling it for the good ones, as usual."
I hadn't thought of it that way, and this was a point worth considering, particularly because this woman is both very savvy in conducting this kind of Internet business and also works as a professional psychic.

Another magickal friend chimed in, backing up Charlie:
"I think it's good that e-bay is banning this because as Charlie said, there are a lot of charlatans out there. In the FAQ section . . .  it answers the question of why these are banned with, "Transactions in these categories often result in issues between the buyer and seller that are difficult to resolve." I don't see how this is discriminating."
A third FB friend offered this:
"I'm guessing the market for such things will expand widely on Etsy as a result."
Which is true.... People are going to find a way, a work-around, and keep doing what they do. Alas, this includes both the honest folks and the charlatans.

A fourth Facebooker said,
"It seems to me that what they're upset about is the question of affect versus object. Notice how they're also prohibiting business advice, not simply metaphysical/spiritual exchanges. Rosaries will be fine, partly because Christianity, but mostly because rosaries are a physical object. Charms/amulets will probably still make it up there because they are object-based. That is, assuming they're not promising to deliver David Tennant right to your doorstep. But if anyone's got a charm or spell for that then we should work something out."
By this time, I was enjoying the exchange and happy to be hearing a number of varied thoughts on this topic I had little experience with. But the whole thing still bugged me. Yes, eBay is a business, and yes, they can make the rules for their business and the ways people interact with it. But it still seemed discriminatory to me. It didn't smell quite right.

And then, the Wild Hunt posted an interesting compilation post about the issue. Wild Hunt blogger Jason Pitzl-Waters began by summarizing the issues and then pointed out that most tangible items would still be on safe ground:
"It’s important to note that items that have a tangible value for the item itself and may also be used in metaphysical rites and practices (ie  jewelry, crystals, incense, candles, and books) are allowed in most cases."
The WH then took me in a new direction, though, raising a disturbing question. With this, the threads came neatly together for me, and I realized why the topic had bothered me. Pitzl-Waters pointed out that in recent court cases, magickal services and divination have been classified as "protected speech" under the Constitution. He considered whether eBay's decision was interfering with free and/or protected speech, and wondered why this didn't actually discourage eBay from making these changes. Interesting, yes?

The WH also expressed concern over a potential domino effect, affecting other providers or supporters of magickal exchange like PayPal or Etsy and having a significant impact on Internet commerce. (This is close to invoking a slippery slope fallacy, but it's still a point well taken.)

The replies to Pitzl-Waters' post were fascinating to read, and many continued to echo my concern over possible "discrimination," as in this reply written by Tau'ri:
"In the news article, it was pointed out that Ebay would NOT be banning things like "holy water" and a commentor [sic] wanted to know why this was different from potions. Good point. If it's a Christian "potion" its okay, but if it's a NON-Christian "potion" then it's banned? If that isn't discrimination, I don't know what is."
So, there we are. The free speech issue is what still bothers me most, although I remain concerned about the potential for religious inequity and bias. I understand why eBay may have made these changes, but I'm still skeptical as to the underlying intent, i.e., I wish I could have heard those boardroom discussions. I imagine we'll be hearing and reading lots more about these issues in the months to come. Since we magickal folks have embraced the Internet and digital world as a key functional aspect of our culture and communication, I think this is going to be pretty interesting.

No comments: