Digital Self-Censorship and the New eBay Policy Change

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Recent changes to the eBay Adult Items Policy will become a barrier to online comic sales for retailers and fans. The policy, which goes into effect June 15, specifically mentions banning the sale of “Sexually explicit anime, comics, books, animation, manga, hentai, yaoi.”

These restrictions only relate to sexually explicit items. However, the terms for what is considered sexually explicit are vague and broad. The vagueness arises from restricting most adult-only content, and nudity of any kind is considered adult-only. This removes the idea of viewing nudity in context; it simply eliminates it.

While the new restrictions are vague and seem to conflate nudity with sexuality, at the same time, they make allowances for specific items like books with no pictures, magazines like Playboy and Playgirl, pre-1970s pinups, and pre-1940s photographs. There is a sense of picking and choosing what materials are acceptable using some unknown criteria.

When news sites like The Verge and Vice reached out to eBay about the reason for the change, they received the same response — “eBay is committed to maintaining a safe and trusted marketplace.” Scrolling to the bottom of the policy page eBay notes,

“We want to make adult items available to those who wish to purchase them and can do so legally, while preventing those who do not wish to view or purchase these items from easily accessing them.”

These are heavy restrictions being placed on sellers to prevent others from seeing the material. It is akin to dusting a china shop by swinging around a baseball bat. It begs the question, is there more to the ban than protecting consumers?

In a recent interview with ICv2, CBLDF Interim Director Jeff Trexler spoke about what this ban has in common with other bans and how there may be international pressure.

“You’re facing the process of having the server shut down in many major marketplaces around the world where sexually explicit material is being presented in laws and regulations as against national unity, as against national health. It’s the same way by the way that Wertham talked about this material being against social and civic health back in the 1950s. So they’re facing their servers being cut off, and in certain countries, they’re facing criminal prosecution.”

Recent changes to digital law in China, India, and Russia have increased the liability for companies and the employees of those companies. It seems many feel they need to censor themselves to cover their bases. About recent changes in China, Jeremy Daum, a senior fellow at Yale Law School remarked, “it’s in line with the general trend of changes we’ve been seeing in recent years towards increasing restrictions and the outsourcing of censorship”

Additionally troubling in the eBay ban is the specific mention of yaoi, a genre centered on romantic and/or sexual relationships among male characters. It’s difficult to see this mention and not believe there is a component of identity censorship in play. Russia currently has restrictive laws in place that target material seen as “propagandizing non-traditional relationships.” The responsibility of moderating the content, again, falls on the shoulders of the hosting platform. It is troubling to see foreign policies possibly affecting the free speech of the marketplace.

Whenever I see changes in policy like the eBay Adult Item Policy, it reminds me of the canary in the coal mine.

Trexler states it well,

“As always when we have this kind of attempt to regulate speech the CBLDF is going to be defending the freedom of creators to express themselves through their art, and the freedom of people to sell that art for others to read. We are, as we always have been, committed to free speech and the expression of that speech in comics…  If we’re going to have commerce, if we’re going to have shops that are open to all and are going to be the most dominant shops in the world then people should feel free to express themselves and sell the material they want to sell on that shop.”

Read Trexler’s further thoughts on the eBay changes, Comics Code 2.0, and algorithmic censorship here.

The Comic Book Legal Defense Fund (CBLDF) is a nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting the legal rights of the comic arts community. With a membership that includes creators, publishers, retailers, educators, librarians, and fans, the CBLDF has defended dozens of First Amendment cases in courts across the United States and led important educational initiatives promoting comics literacy and free expression.