EBay’s Bot Block Is a Threat to Web Growth and Hurts Consumers
A smoldering conflict between Internet auction king EBay and a handful of upstart auction bots--tools that scour many auction sites simultaneously and deliver a master list of relevant items on demand--may help answer a crucial question of cyberspace: How tightly can a corporation control content created by a network of millions of users?
On that answer may rest the future of the auction economy and, by extension, other realms of e-commerce.
The battle pits EBay against three puny upstarts--AuctionWatch.com, Bidders Edge and AuctionRover.com. A few weeks ago, AuctionWatch launched a universal auction search that could deliver a list of, say, Beanie Babies for sale from any of some 300 auction sites.
To place a bid on any item on the list, users would click on the item and travel to the auction site itself--EBay, Yahoo Auctions, Amazon.com or any other.
On its face the process seems innocuous enough. After all, what could be more natural for the Web than a search? Shopping bots--price and merchant comparison tools that are fast becoming critical drivers of e-commerce--do almost the same thing without anyone complaining.
But unlike online merchants whose offerings are indexed by shopping bots, not to mention every other auction site, EBay balked. It claimed that AuctionWatch was violating its trademark, misappropriating its brand, depriving buyers of EBay services and even pilfering its “property”--that is, summary information on auction listings.
EBay ultimately cut off AuctionWatch by technologically blocking its bot and has threatened to do the same with the other services if they do not voluntarily back off. The move effectively kills any universal auction search because EBay has 3 million-plus simultaneous auctions, which gives it 70% of the consumer-auction market, according to analyst firm Gomez Advisors.
EBay offers ostensibly high-minded reasons for blocking the bots. For example, bot searches can be misleading--showing, say, only 700 Pez dispensers on sale at EBay when 1,200 are available.
Auction bots are far from perfect, but the point cuts both ways. My spot checks of other items showed that before AuctionWatch was blocked it sometimes searched EBay more reliably than EBay’s own search engine. And like most Web technologies, auction bots will improve over time.
Though the quality complaint gives EBay a sheen of high-minded concern for its customers, the company’s deeper motivation is self-interest.
EBay objects to “deep linking,” that is, Web site links that go several layers beneath a site’s home page. When bypassing EBay’s home page, the argument goes, bots provide a distorted view of EBay and effectively deprive users of key EBay services.
“While we certainly understand the point of linkage in the Internet space, the issue of deep linking is entirely another issue,” said EBay spokesman Kevin Pursglove, who called auction aggregation equivalent to “trespassing and stealing EBay property.”
The logic of EBay’s argument seems elusive, given that EBay’s full range of features and services are only a click away from the pages of individual auctions. Moreover, deep linking is so common on the Web that any reasonably experienced user would hardly be baffled about how to get from an EBay auction page to its home page if needed.
Pursglove said that EBay will not define its legal basis for blocking the bots except in a possible lawsuit--something that AuctionWatch is contemplating. But legal experts view EBay’s copyright claims, the most likely protection it could argue, as weak at best.
“Since a lot of what [EBay] wants to control is actually content created by other people, they are in a funny position,” said Pamela Samuelson, professor of law and information management at UC Berkeley’s Boalt Hall School of Law.
EBay’s funny position is what makes this apparently obscure dispute a high-stakes battle for how the Web will develop.
Unlike typical online merchants, EBay sells nothing; instead, it connects buyers and sellers, earning its money on commissions. This explains EBay’s reluctance to play ball with the bot makers. As long as EBay dominates the auction market overwhelmingly, what incentive do buyers or sellers have to go anywhere else? Successful bots would lessen EBay’s control--it can only go down from here.
EBay’s action “could fundamentally change the Internet as it is today and limit its growth,” said Rodrigo Sales, chief executive of AuctionWatch.
Hyperbole aside, Sales is right about this: If EBay can block access to its listings with impunity and gains effective ownership over auction listings created by sellers, the consequences could be ominous. Any company that perceives its proprietary interests as compromised by search tools might be tempted to impose a Web straitjacket on the bots.
What if every newsgroup posting, every news article, every review became available only by going through the home page of the sponsoring Web site? Searching as we know it would be replaced by a cumbersome and inefficient substitute.
EBay’s stance is defiantly anti-consumer. And there’s no shortage of irony in the situation: The Web’s most effective networking company wants to capture the auction market in a way that’s antithetical to how Web networks grow.
There’s a technical term for an auction mega-mart that subverts comparison shopping: unfair monopoly.
Times staff writer Charles Piller can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.