BUSINESSWEEK ONLINE : NOVEMBER 20, 2000 ISSUE
BUSINESS WEEK E.BIZ -- NET CULTURE

Making a Killing Online
Ghoulish auctions run the gamut from bad taste to the truly shocking

Photo by James Keyser
Nissenbaum: Where's the accountability?
Serial killer Angel Resendez-Ramirez smiles as he sits behind bulletproof glass on Death Row in a maximum-security prison in South Livingston, Tex. Nicknamed the ''railroad killer'' because he almost always killed his victims close to railroad tracks, he has admitted to murdering 12 women across the U.S. and faces a sentence of death by lethal injection. Yet, while he's being interviewed by the Spanish TV network Univision in October, he jokes and revels in his fame. Locks of his hair and shavings from the callouses on his feet have been sold on Internet auction site eBay ( EBAY) for $9.99 a pop. And he wonders aloud whether there might be a market for his ''bodily secretions.'' He gets a cut from dealers each time a little piece of him is sold. ''I'm famous,'' Resendez-Ramirez says in Spanish. ''Why shouldn't I?''

Tom Konvicka can think of some reasons. His mother, 73-year-old Josephine Konvicka, was one of the victims. The drifter broke into her house on the night of June 4, 1999, and slaughtered her in bed. When Resendez-Ramirez was caught and locked up, Konvicka remembers feeling relief that his mom's murderer was being brought to justice. Now, he's disgusted. ''A deep anger welled up in me'' when he learned what the killer was doing online, says Konvicka, a Houston police officer. ''Serial killers shouldn't profit from their murders. Their victims are dead and gone and they're still here, breathing, and making a profit on what they've done. It's not right. There ought to be a law.''

Trouble is, there isn't. In Texas, as in most other states, there's nothing to prevent criminals from selling so-called murderabilia on the Internet. eBay and other sites don't prevent it, either. In fact, there's little to discourage the sale of a whole range of questionable items online. As the Internet has grown in popularity, it's a ready-made market connecting individuals with a vast audience of potential buyers--all protected by a cloak of semi-anonymity and the hands-off policies of Web auction sites. That wide-open flea market has produced a cornucopia of items for sale that are arguably in bad taste or unethical, if not downright illegal. Alongside Beanie Babies on mainstream auction sites, you will find the nude autopsy photos of murdered children, Nazi and Ku Klux Klan paraphernalia, votes in the Presidential election, and organs available for transplanting. How's this for unsettling? A ''Peek-A-Boo Dahmer Slayset'' sold on eBay for $69.69. It's a Jeffrey Dahmer doll with a victim doll tucked inside, and a toy garbage can with little body parts that glow in the dark.

Sure, a lot of the offbeat stuff is harmless. Someone paid $4,000 for Elvis' dental records. A fan paid $23.50 last summer for a piece of half-eaten toast left behind in a New York hotel room by N'Sync superstar Justin Timberlake. An 18-year-old Ontario youth offered to sell his soul--and 45 people placed bids of from $4 to $11. Dan Lewis, a Tufts University student who founded Philadelphia-based whatTheHeck.com, which tracks ''weird'' items sold over eBay and posts them, says: ''A lot of people are trying to get attention, or a good laugh.''

Not a garage sale. Few laugh, however, when somebody crosses the line. A growing chorus of ethicists, lawmakers, consumer groups, and Internet activists say something needs to be done--either stepped-up monitoring by auction sites themselves, or statutes that police the Netways. The auction sites ''are not simply the cyber-equivalent of somebody's garage sale,'' says ethicist Helen Nissenbaum, director of the Science, Technology, and Ethics program at Princeton University. ''By refusing to take responsibility for what is sold on their site, they're cashing in on an overall lack of social accountability the Net offers people.'' Nissenbaum believes that while the sale of murderabilia or Nazi items are not illegal, it's ''morally reprehensible,'' and doesn't belong online.

Problem is, when it comes to the Web, it's sometimes difficult to tell what's illegal, what ought to be illegal, and what's just in bad taste. It's clearly against the law to sell things such as endangered species and certain kinds of firearms. But how do you prevent minors from buying alcohol and pornography in a realm where nobody knows their age? Selling body organs online isn't necessarily a crime, but a doctor who participates could breach professional ethics. And how do you prevent the trafficking in items like neo-Nazi paraphernalia that are illegal in some places (such as Germany) but not in others? ''It's loose and dirty, still, and the regulators are still trying to figure out what they should be doing,'' says Shari Steele, director of legal services for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which monitors law and ethics in cyberspace.

Given all the confusion, society's first line of defense could be auction site operators--but they're having none of it. Indeed, eBay, which makes up to $500,000 a day on commissions, has a laissez-faire attitude about what is sold on the site. ''As a rule of thumb, any merchandise that you could sell at a swap meet or to a neighbor should be available there,'' says eBay spokesman Kevin Pursglove. ''We're not into censorship.'' Still, the company has published guidelines that prohibit such things as alcohol, firearms, and human parts. It lists pornography and Nazi items only as ''questionable.'' If people break the rules, eBay attempts to prevent them from selling on the site again--if it spots them, that is.

The company claims it's all part of eBay's philosophy of building a community based on trust. But that's not the whole story. By not screening items, eBay skirts potential liability and high monitoring costs. Indeed, at this point, the site is not so easy to police. With 7.7 million registered users, eBay almost matches the population of New York City. At any given time, it has some 3 million items up for auction--adding 600,000 new items every day.

Now that Net auctions have become such a magnet for potentially dicey items, some states and federal agencies are stepping up their efforts to stop abuses. Last summer, prompted by the sale of murder-related items on the Net, California lawmakers passed a law that makes it illegal for prisoners to profit off their crimes. Meanwhile, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is investigating repeated incidents of endangered wildlife being sold over eBay and Yahoo. And the FBI's Internet Fraud Complaint Center gets more than 1,000 complaints of online auction fraud each month--most of them involving eBay traffic. Agents have begun turning some of these cases over to local law enforcement authorities.

Other auction sites are being watched, too. In October, state elections officials in Illinois and New York temporarily shut down Voteauction.com, an Internet site where Americans could sell their votes to the highest bidder. More than 15,000 people in 14 states had registered for the auctions before officials stopped trading. The site now operates as Vote-auction.com on a server in Germany. Authorities say they are keeping close watch and will nab all who accept money for their votes--and the people who pay them--charging them with violating state and federal election laws. ''This is an outrage to the system of democracy,'' says Peter Eisner, managing director of the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit research center in Washington, D.C. ''It undermines the system.''

Photo by David J. Philip/AP/Wide World
Killer Resendez-Ramirez sells his hair on auction site eBay.com
Nightmares. As troublesome as such sites may be, it's the murder cases that elicit anguish. Even though it has been 18 years since Harriet Semander's daughter, Elena, was killed by Coral Eugene Watts, the terror continues for her--online. Normally, Semander says, she would have only occasional nightmares about the night when her daughter's body turned up in a neighborhood trash dumpster. But her nightmares started coming every night last spring when she saw that Watts' locks of hair and autographs were being sold on eBay. ''I became physically sick when I saw this,'' Semander says. ''And what made me even sicker is that eBay is profiting from this type of thing being sold. It's wrong, just morally wrong.''

What kind of person would sell or buy a lock of a murderer's hair? According to Andy Kahan, a victims' rights lawyer in the Houston mayor's crime victims office, it's mostly professional dealers who sell ''to people who want to be cool or fearless or who simply find pleasure in somebody else's pain.'' Whatever the motivation, this is big business. Just ask Ted Svejda, a memorabilia dealer from Plano, Ill. Among other things, he peddles wood from the remains of the Wisconsin farmhouse of deceased serial killer Ed Gein, who inspired Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho. Svejda says he used to deal only underground, and had just a trickle of business. After he started trading on eBay, sales doubled--though he wouldn't reveal sales figures. ''It's like everybody is coming into my shop now, not just the people who traded in this, but new ones altogether,'' he says. Does he care about the effect on the families of crime victims? ''Sure, it probably hurts victims' families to see this stuff,'' Svejda says. ''But I'm not going to let that stop me from making a buck.''

The very nature of the Web makes the unthinkable more possible. Absent the Internet, many people might not have been exposed to the opportunity to revel in Nazi items or bloody murder photos, or be offered an easy chance to buy them without fear of social backlash. ''You wouldn't walk into a store and buy a gang-rape video, which was for sale on eBay,'' says Princeton's Nissenbaum. ''Most people wouldn't be caught purchasing this stuff in public.''

Endangered species. Indeed, the medium makes the market. When environmentalist Gary Appelson logged onto eBay earlier this year and typed in the words ''tortoise shell'' at the search prompt, he found more than 50 auctions featuring sea turtle shell ornaments, glasses, cases, and even a guitar pick. He contacted authorities, including U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service special agent Bob Snow, who investigates wildlife smuggling in the San Francisco Bay area. In the past year, Snow says, he has identified roughly 300 auctions on eBay involving items prohibited by the Endangered Species Act, including the sale of leopard skins and a frozen baby white tiger. ''eBay is a magnet for people who previously didn't have many outlets,'' Snow says. Before, the market was limited. Now, via eBay and other online auction sites, ''you're immediately linked up to millions of people.''

The Web amplifies ethical dilemmas, too. Consider MedicineOnline.com, a site that connects plastic surgery doctors and patients on the Net. People who want surgery post their information on the site, and participating physicians bid for jobs. Medical ethicists are outraged because the site encourages people to make risky medical decisions based mainly on price. ''This is not like an airline seat. These are human lives,'' says Dr. Mimis Cohen, chief of plastic surgery at the University of Illinois at Chicago and Cook County Hospital, who worries that unscrupulous doctors will cut corners, endangering a patient's health.

Photo by Pam Francis
Semander was sickened to learn that autographs of her daughter's killer were being sold online
What irks him most: The site asks doctors to provide info about their education and experience--including their history of malpractice suits--but takes no responsibility for the veracity of that information. By contrast, a regular hospital is legally bound to take responsibility for the credentials and services of doctors who practice there. The site defends itself. ''If a doctor wants to lie on a resume, that's not MedicineOnline's problem,'' says Richard Van Meter, a doctor and MedicineOnline.com executive board member. ''It's the consumer's problem. That keeps liability costs low and out of MOL's lap.''

That's eBay's answer, too: Since it does not sell anything itself, it's not responsible for what is sold on the site. eBay asks sellers to report any breach of guidelines--in other words, to police the site themselves.

Far from putting handcuffs on auction sites, existing laws actually provide them with some cover. Under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998, for example, site operators can't be held liable for illegally distributed material if they are ''unaware'' of the illegal status of the item, or if they lack the ability to control the trade. While this law focuses on copyright protections, eBay is citing it as part of its defense against a suit by six San Diego residents who bought sports memorabilia on the site that turned out to be fake. The plaintiffs are seeking a refund of the $1,000 they paid, and are calling for eBay to be held responsible for fraud on its site.

If the plaintiffs win, it could force eBay to be accountable for certain items on its site. An outcome like that, legal experts say, might sink eBay's profits and force it to shrink so it can afford to adequately monitor sales of items on its site. eBay has argued repeatedly that it should not be held responsible because it doesn't list items for sale and never has the items in its possession. eBay attorney Rob Chestnut declined to be interviewed for this story.

eBay claims a healthy respect for the First Amendment as a motivation for its hands-off attitude. And the American Civil Liberties Union has sided with eBay when critics call for banning the sale of Nazi and KKK memorabilia--calling it a free speech issue. Says eBay's Pursglove: ''Our community tends to see any efforts on our part to discourage certain sales as a violation of their First Amendment rights.''

Indeed, some eBay denizens are quite touchy about anything that would crimp their freedom. Teresa Hoyt, of Kalamazoo, Mich., runs a home business, fatcats.com, reselling PG-rated videos that she buys on eBay to others via the Net. She says she sees offensive items on the auction site, but doesn't complain to eBay, and wouldn't want anything to be done about it. People go to the Web because they can buy or sell almost anything there. ''I don't want eBay telling us what's right or moral by telling us what we can sell and what we cannot,'' she says. ''If we don't like something, we can always turn the computer off.''

Her attitude is just one of many reasons why it's difficult to stop the auctioning of illegal or bad-taste items online. The federal government doesn't have the resources to find and shut down online auctions of endangered species. Neither do most of the auction sites. Even as eBay started shutting down an auction for a sea turtle, new ones started popping up, according to Appelson. He calls on the company to review all incoming items. For now, though, eBay plans to rely on its guidelines--and on its community of members--to blow the whistle on anything beyond the pale. Pursglove says increasing site traffic will make it harder for people to conduct bad business on eBay. ''The more we grow,'' he says, ''the more people in our community are watching.''

That's little comfort to Harriet Semander, the mother of one of Coral Eugene Watt's victims. Semander fears that ''the more eBay grows, the more people will be buying'' offensive stuff. With creeps and criminals like Watts and Resendez-Ramirez virtually on the loose, eBay's self-monitoring system may not be enough.

By MARCIA STEPANEK
Contributing: David Polek

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EBIZ Contents for issue dated Nov. 20, 2000


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