Update: After 90 minutes of live chat, three emails and five phone calls, eBay have changed their rules on the use of “gay” and “lesbian” in shop categories, which is a positive move. That it took a month’s worth of effort to get the result is less positive. Live chat was embarrassingly poor, emails received were often cut and pasted from standard paragraphs, and four times on the phone I was promised a response via email within 24 hours which didn’t happen. This surely isn’t good enough customer service for a company that has just increased some of its fees by 250%.
The original blog post appears below:
It appears to me that Ebay has a problematic relationship with the gay community. At the end of last year, stories appeared in the media and social media of certain products being withdrawn from sale after being labelled as being of “gay interest” – this included a T-shirt of a reindeer wearing a rainbow flag, no less. While Ebay did apologise and admitted its mistake once the story went public, one has to wonder whether there is something more sinister at work here than an automated system going a little haywire. After all, why are the words “gay interest” in the system at all as possibly being related to possibly offensive or banned items?
I have come across a similar issue this week. With Ebay raising their insertion fees by 250% on some items, opening a “shop” seemed the cheapest way forward (although the amount of inclusive listings in hiring a shop has been halved too). When entering the categories I wanted for my shop, I worked through innocuous names with no problems.
DVD: World Cinema
DVD: Silent Cinema
However, when I tried to enter that highly offensive term “DVD: Gay Cinema,” I got a notice flash up on the screen telling me that the word “gay” was “inappropriate.” Needless to say, the system doesn’t like “lesbian cinema” either – but “straight cinema” is just fine. “Gay interest cinema” is also a no-go, although “gay-themed cinema” is fine, but presumably only because the hyphen means the word “gay” doesn’t get detected.
My issue here was not that I had to use a hyphen, but the labelling of the term “gay” as “inappropriate.” Inappropriate to who? And why? Was Ebay somehow linking the word “gay” with sex and pornography? That would be wrong, of course, but it would at least give an explanation. But that couldn’t be right either because, as I tried out different category titles, I found out that “adult DVDs” caused no problems for Ebay at all, and wasn’t deemed inappropriate.
And so it was that, on Sunday afternoon, I headed to Ebay live chat to find out what was going on. In my ninety minute chat, I spoke to four representatives. None of them could help me. Three of them suggested ways around the problem, but none seemed to understand that getting around the issue wasn’t the problem – my problem was that the word “gay” was tagged as “inappropriate.” One of the reps told me that the system had problems with “that kind of word,” although I’m not quite sure what kind of word that might be. The final lady I spoke to apologised for her “incontinence” (no joke), and I told her I was glad it wasn’t a face to face conversation. After I left the conversation, I received a long message from this lady telling me why pornographic items were not allowed on Ebay (which had nothing to do with our conversation).
I then decided that the way forward would be to send Ebay an email. This also caused problems. They have no public email address. I went back to live chat, and they told me I would have to send my complaint by post to Dublin. I told them that an online business really shouldn’t be forcing its customers to send complaints by snail mail to another country. No, I was assured, there was no email address. Bearing this in mind, I then told them that I would, instead, write an open letter of complaint on my blog and tweet it to all my followers. I asked if Ebay had an email address now. Yes, they did, as it happens. Funny that.
So, I sent my email to Ebay and, in less than 24 hours, I got my response. However, it was rather problematic. Part of it reads as follows:
“I understand this matter is frustrating for you as you have being restricted for using the word ‘gay’ in your shop category title. Please understand this word is not inappropriate to use, however we have to factor in the whole eBay community. eBay’s community is a diverse, international group of users with varied backgrounds and beliefs, and it’s easy to image how home items listed on eBay might be offensive to at least some of our users somewhere in the world. …The word gay in not considered inappropriate as mentioned above this may not be offensive in your eyes or mine; however, we need to consider eBay as a whole.”
No matter how much Ebay tries to sweeten this, the facts remain the same – there is discrimination going on here, and the company are clearly worried that, for some reason, some people might have trouble with the word “gay.” That Ebay are seemingly intent on bowing to the whims of the homophobic only makes the matter ten times worse than it already is. When the gay/LGBT DVD genre was deleted from Ebay UK last year, I assumed it was simply part of their reorganisation. However, I’m now beginning to wonder if there wasn’t a darker reason behind that too.
When I started this little investigation 48 hours ago, I honestly thought that Ebay had deemed the word “gay” as inappropriate for shop categories fifteen years ago when attitudes were, by and large, less tolerant, and never put it right due to an oversight. However, my reply from the company via email states quite clearly that it is “inappropriate” because some people, somewhere in the world, might find it offensive.
Bearing that in mind, I say to Ebay that the LGBT community is likely to find that offensive in itself. If the system hadn’t been updated as times changed, then I would say “fine,” but put it right now you are aware. That clearly isn’t what happened here, and there is a clear statement from the company that they are keen to deem a word describing a lifestyle as “inappropriate” in order to not lose the custom of the homophobic few.