You wouldn’t expect Rob Chesnut ’84, the deputy general counsel to the largest online marketplace in the world, to be spending his day worrying about lawn darts.
But in fact, lawn darts are just one of the millions of items the former federal prosecutor must concern himself with as he polices eBay and attempts to keep the Web site a viable place to do business.
“We do all we can,” said Chesnut. “We want to have a good reputation and don’t want buyers or sellers to get hurt in the process.”
Along with handling compliance issues, Chesnut also creates programs to educate users, oversees litigation in domestic affairs, coordinates investigations with state, federal, and foreign agencies, and handles all legal aspects of employee relations and real estate transactions. EBay has more than 2 million users a day vying for as many as 6 million items. According to the Federal Trade Commission, there were nearly 11,000 online-auction fraud complaints in 2000, up from about 100 in 1997.
“We can’t possibly screen all the items or know all the items–the numbers are unfathomable,” he said. “It would be impossible, but also we don’t have the right.”
According to the U.S. Communications Decency Act of 1996, a provider of an interactive computer service cannot be held liable as the publisher of information furnished by another content provider. “The Communications Act doesn’t want eBay and others to edit sites,” he said. “We need to make [eBay] available to everyone.”
While users can list just about anything they want for sale, eBay does strive to eliminate abusers of the system and repeat offenders, Chesnut said. He also tries to educate users of eBay about current laws so they can better protect themselves. “EBay is much like a big garage sale,” he said.
High-profile auction items such as babies, kidneys, and a “barely used brain” are not Chesnut’s biggest worry, he said. “They appear to be hoaxes, and no one is actually intent on going through with a transaction,” he said.
However, items that people will pay for that may be fraudulent, unsafe, or illegal are his main concern. For example, lawn darts, banned by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) in 1988, have surfaced for sale on eBay. When one of eBay’s users e-mailed Chesnut to alert him to the sale of lawn darts on the site, the deputy general counsel joined forces with the CPSC to create a link on eBay that lists all products the commission has banned over the years. The number of hits on the CPSC site has tripled since the link was created, Chesnut said.
Chesnut came to work at eBay because of his own interest in the site. Late one night he was searching for Polaroid fold-up cameras online, and sent his resume to eBay’s online job search. The company called him the next day.
“It was a total whim,” he said. “I had been sending resumes to private companies, but this was a perfect fit because of my government experience.”
Chesnut’s wife, Angela Malacari, also works at eBay, heading a team of investigators that works with law enforcement agencies to track down fraudulent sellers. Chesnut previously worked as a federal prosecutor for 11 years, handling everything from bank robberies to kidnappings and espionage cases, including the prosecution of Aldrich Ames, the CIA official who spied for Russia. Despite his experience, he said, “Nothing could prepare you for eBay.”