Several potentially explosive stories caught my eye this week. All concern insidious and illegal practices taking place under the hoods of three otherwise revered enterprises. If not resolved, all can cause considerable damage to the reputations (and bottom lines) of these enterprises. All will require a deft touch in the PR department to put the blight in their rear view mirrors.
Last week, Tiffany sued eBay for selling and profiting from the sale of counterfeit goods. This week, the Attorney General of Connecticut opened an investigation into MySpace.com for allegedly serving as a haven for sexual predators. And today, craigslist was sued for hosting real estate classifieds that violate the Federal Fair Housing Act.
How much responsibilty should these companies take for policing the community-created content that resides on their respective sites/marketplaces? If it is ruled that they are, wouldn’t the scale of such an undertaking make it virtually impossible, and most certainly unprofitable, to effect? Here’s a smattering of their public comments thus far:
An eBay spokesperson: “We never take possession of the goods sold through eBay, and we don’t have any expertise. We’re not clothing experts. We’re not car experts, and we’re not jewelry experts. We’re experts at building a marketplace and bringing buyers and sellers together.”
A prepared statement from MySpace.com: “When public-safety issues are brought to the company’s attention, the company cooperates directly with local, state and federal law enforcement.”
And via email from craigslist: “Discriminatory ads on craigslist are actually exceedingly rare.” He cited users’ vigilance in flagging such ads for removal from the site, as well as the company’s recently enhanced efforts to link fair housing information to housing-related postings. In addition, he wrote, “the law is pretty clear to the effect that sites like craigslist cannot be held legally liable for the content of postings submitted by end users.”
These stories have extraordinary implications. All three companies are caught in a balancing act. They must first acknowledge their problems, figure out how to effectively resolve them in a scalable way, while remaining cognizant of how adverse media attention can taint their brands, let alone the vitality and growth of their respective communities.