2nd report: European Commission High Level Conference on Counterfeiting and Piracy 13 May 2008
Is the online auction platform, eBay, going to be the next Internet target for the legislators? Judging by the mood at the European Commission's policy forum on counterfeiting, the answer could be 'yes'.
Phillippe Lacoste, chairman of the clothing manufacturer of the same name, and grandson of the champion tennis player and founder, served first. His charming manner belied a tough message: "eBay..ils doivent prendre responsabilite" (eBay must take responsbility) he said. M.Lacoste alleged that
counterfeit Lacoste products are available on the site, and called for eBay to work with the public authorities to deal with the problem.
Marc Antoine Jamet, chairman of Unifab, the French anti-counterfeit organisation, put a little more topspin on his word. He called directly for legislative controls to be placed on the large Internet sites, including eBay, and accused them of refusing to co-operate. He argued that eBay is not proactive and what it does is not good enough.
Richard Heath, global anti-counterfeiting counsel for Unilever, put in a neat backhand - he wants to see restrictions on advertising and sale of counterfeit goods on the Internet. He called for a self-regulatory approach, where the industry and consumers would work together.
It was clear from all three presentations that eBay was the target, and the Commission had even pre-empted this by offering eBay the opportunity to respond from the floor. An eBay press officer was the company's representative. She lobbed back that eBay does co-operate with rights owners but " some don't want to co-operate with us". She claimed that less than 1 per cent of eBay trade worldwide is counterfeit goods, and highlighted how the company educates its users about the issue of trading in counterfeit goods. She further claimed that eBay has removed 2.2 million objects in the last 6 months, and invests heavily in technology tools to act as she called it 'the good samaritan' ( it wasn't entirely clear in what way it is a 'samaritan', but this was her term). And she claimed that eBay has trained 7000 law enforcement officers.
But a press officer versus the grandson of the founder, is not an equal match. Certainly this first set went to M. Lacoste et al.
And therein lies the real issue. This would appear to be another situation where certain politically influential industries campaign for legislation related to the Internet, which suits their purposes but stands to be detrimental to many users, without the users getting a say - for where were the eBay users at this conference?
As an active user of eBay, I find this concerning. I do not condone counterfeiting, and I also would not normally stick up for a large, US-based, multi-national corporate monopoly - as eBay, in one sense, is. But if we are going to debate eBay at a political level, lets get the debate on an appropriate footing with some political understanding of the real issues.
Starting from a purely personal perspective, I have bought on eBay everything from bathroom tiles, to furnishings, to shampoo. I buy designer clothing from UK high street brands like M and S and FCUK, to international brands like Jaeger and Armani, and niche designers like Claudia Strater. I've only once suspected that a garment was fake, and that was due to poor manufacturing quality. The clothing is either second hand, manufacturers' seconds or stock clearance.
The ladies - and they usually are ladies - who sell me the clothing, are middle class women who run 'proper' businesses trading in high quality (worn once) second hand clothing in leafy Berkshire villages. Indeed, many traders on eBay are ordinary people. If one goes to my local post office at 4pm in the afternoon, they can be seen - they are the ones holding up the queue with their multiple parcels, with neatly typed address labels, and they range from the 17-year old boy who trades in second-hand computer games ( he tells me he turns over £1500 a month) - to pensioners.
EBay is, if you like, an electronic provider of market halls. Traders can take a pitch, set up their stall, and eBay does the promotion to bring in the customers, and it sets the rules for fair trading and fraud protection - rules which have stood the test of time and millions of deals. Within its vast digital caverns, eBay hosts thousands of vibrant, buzzing communities of small traders.
One has to question the wisdom of legislating in respect of eBay solely at the behest of large industrialists who, however charming, are pushing a protectionist ideology, when such legislation would put at risk the Lisbon agenda goals of boosting Europe's small businesses.
It's interesting to note that questions have been asked in the European Parliament about 'online auction houses', not naming eBay, but it is clearly the real target - and that the MEP asking this question is the wife of the CEO of French multi-national media company, Vivendi.