Is Leaving Negative Feedback on eBay Libelous?

Can you be sued for leaving negative seller feedback on eBay? Chris Read, a 42-year-old mechanic from the UK, purchased a mobile phone on eBay for £155 (about $246). When it arrived, he discovered it was not the model that was advertised and that it was not in very good condition. Read followed standard eBay procedure by providing what he felt was appropriate feedback on the seller, Joel Jones, also from the UK.  Read noted: “Item was scratched, chipped and not the model advertised on Mr Jones’s eBay account.”

Jones responded by sending Read an email that claimed such a negative feedback was detrimental to his business and threatened to sue Read unless he removed his comments. Despite being given a full refund, Read refused. Jones refers to Read’s comments as “unfair, unreasonable and damaging.”

Libel is publishing a false or defamatory statement which damages someone’s reputation. However, the truth is always a defense against libel. As long as the specifics of Read’s claim are documented, I would hope the case will be thrown out. Plus, Jones as much as admitted those facts – they are not in dispute.

I doubt Jones has any merit to his argument. However, what may be interesting about this case is how eBay responds to it. They created the conditions for the dispute by virtue of the feedback mechanism. It is eBay that demotes a seller’s standing among listings according to the buyer’s feedback. Although Jones agreed to those terms of use as a seller and is trying to avoid negative consequences by bullying a customer, the fact that such a case has proceeded this far will force eBay to review some of its policies. Legal blow-ups outside eBay’s dispute resolution process is probably bad for the company’s reputation.

In fact, eBay makes changes to the balance of power between seller and buyer all the time.  Earlier in 2008, eBay removed the ability for sellers to provide feedback on buyers. If Jones had had this avenue to answer Read’s claims, perhaps the court system would not have been bothered by this suit.

In the end, the greatest damage to Jones’ reputation has been done by Jones himself.

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