At eBay, in Washington, D.C., in 2007, the workers who scraped out a living by selling used clothes and other merchandise on the Web found themselves on the verge of a major downsizing. The business was terrible, with “less than a quarter of employees earning enough to make ends meet.” Even worse, trade in secondhand goods was skyrocketing and eBay would have to reckon with the fact that, one day, somebody might decide to control over the price of merchandise bought in France and sent to Paris, for instance.
So the 740 men and women in the Washington eBay warehouse attempted something not exactly unprecedented in American labor law: They bought flea market spider mounts and sent them to a Portland writer, Dale Schlosser, whose blog spouted reactionary conservative viewpoints against free trade. This kind of communique from Flea Market Man was hardly novel, but, at eBay, the warehouse workers did it more than once a week, even when they didn’t know Schlosser’s politics. Schlosser got so fed up that he issued a public plea for help.
Who was the human Chihuahua the warehouse workers attacked with an insect, Dale Schlosser or the Internet, whose insults they could’ve ignored? Who would be more avenging of freedom of speech, Dale Schlosser or eBay’s old-school leaders, who seem to have used vengeance as the apparatus of protection for their arcane and obsolescent sense of justice?
The warehouse workers will surely plead guilty. Fortunately, the FBI got wind of the espionage plot and moved to shut it down: Fearing that the items were some kind of poisoned toxin, “diluted” so that they wouldn’t harm anyone, the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives moved in. Several people in this case have come forward and said that eBay was trying to use the environment to hit back at Schlosser for his damning of the company’s view of its role in the developing world.
In other words, when the government hears the word conspiracy, it wants to say that kiddie porn was involved, Watergate was a front for a Russian plot, green organic fertilizer is a Stalinist plot to overthrow the American system. If it gets to this level of paranoia, everybody loses. It’s even worse than an attempt to frame a private citizen.
And this indictment raises a great many questions. One of the main points of the Federal Trade Commission’s first show trial was that the entire American economy was powered by vast illicit outsourcing. The seizure of all of the equipment in the Washington eBay warehouse, even if true, doesn’t apply to many other eBay sellers and does not involve a single foreign-based company at all.
This is a strange charge for eBay’s earlier forerunners. It was eBay’s predecessor company, Infoseek, that got sued over the tortiously interfering law in 1997, that paid a $110 million to comply.
Then, too, this type of exchange did not involve something that was particularly threatening to the safety of others, like poison web pages or poisons in shampoo. Such things were routine in the ordinary life of Americans in 2003 and were certainly inevitable at eBay, for instance, where exchange of abusive messages was a well-established feature of the various forums.
None of this is to suggest that eBay’s position on net neutrality, or on actual shipping technology like Alibaba, might not be worthy of debate. But it is to say that, for all the charges that come with espionage, one should not be lured into thinking that normal trade secret-sharing is on trial here.
Since former eBay employees were supposedly targeting the Seattle headquarters of the beleaguered company — of which there are no fewer than 11 officers or board members — it’s unlikely that this case is a fair and just portrayal of what happened in Washington. But even if it is, it shouldn’t give rise to any sense of insecurity or fear.
There are many more U.S. companies that engage in nondisclosure practices, people who create secret files, secret references. I once proposed setting up a cooperative of specialists, special people who could specialize in common but illegal practices. They would have to operate under a supervision scheme, but without any risk of any prosecution. The flea market spider was a wisecrack: The organizers of the flea market knew that something outrageous was possible, perhaps even likely. But the eBay warehouse workers thought that sending the flea market spider to Mr. Schlosser wasn’t such a wisecrack. Now, their trade will likely put me in court for charges of pirating information. So I’m resigned to a terrible result.