The Department of Justice has filed charges against six individuals formerly associated with eBay on charges they mounted a harassment campaign against Ina Steiner and her husband David, who operate the blog EcommerceBytes. It shows the power of a free press that a big company would stoop to this kind of outrageous attack against a small media outlet.

Business reporters know they’re doing their jobs when the companies they cover react to what they write. In that sense, eBay Inc. has paid Ina Steiner of EcommerceBytes a supreme compliment.

Unfortunately, if charges filed by the U.S. Department of Justice are true, eBay did it by engaging in a despicable campaign of harassment against Ina and her husband David Steiner, the editor and publisher, respectively, of EcommerceBytes.

Several of the defendants ordered anonymous and disturbing deliveries to the victims’ home, including a preserved fetal pig, a bloody pig Halloween mask, a funeral wreath, a book on surviving the loss of a spouse, and pornography.

The Justice Department charges announced yesterday allege that five former eBay employees and an eBay contractor carried out the following acts as part of their campaign:

  • “Several of the defendants ordered anonymous and disturbing deliveries to the victims’ home, including a preserved fetal pig, a bloody pig Halloween mask, a funeral wreath, a book on surviving the loss of a spouse, and pornography—the last of these addressed to the newsletter’s publisher but sent to his neighbors’ homes.”
  • “As part of the second phase of the campaign, some of the defendants allegedly sent private Twitter messages and public tweets criticizing the newsletter’s content and threatening to visit the victims in Natick.”
  • They “planned these messages to become increasingly disturbing, culminating with ‘doxing’ the victims (i.e., publishing their home address).”
  • They went to the couple’s home, put them under surveillance and tried unsuccessfully to put a GPS tracker on the couple’s car.

The Justice Department did not name the targets of this vicious campaign, identifying them only as a married couple living in Natick, Massachusetts, who publish an ecommerce blog. However, the Wall Street Journal identified them today as Ina and David Steiner, who have been publishing EcommerceBytes as a blog about eBay and other online marketplaces since 1999. (Ina Steiner did not respond immediately to a request for comment from Digital Commerce 360.)

How the campaign unraveled

Fortunately, the perpetrators of this campaign were clumsy. The targets spotted the surveillance and contacted the Natick police. The police contacted eBay, which apparently cooperated in the investigation.

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EBay issued its own press release yesterday saying that it fired all six individuals charged in September 2019. “eBay does not tolerate this kind of behavior. eBay apologizes to the affected individuals and is sorry that they were subjected to this,” the release says.

That statement of remorse, however, cannot obscure the fact that several of the people charged were senior executives of eBay before they were fired. They include eBay’s former senior director of safety and security, director of global resiliency, senior manager of global intelligence, the manager of eBay’s global intelligence center and senior manager of special operations for eBay’s global security team.

These were not a handful of mailroom clerks gone rogue.

What’s more, the Justice Department release suggests that the impetus for the campaign included texts from senior executives at eBay. It appears that includes then-CEO Devin Wenig.

According to the Wall Street Journal article, one senior executive texted in April 2019, “We are going to crush this lady” to an individual identified only as “Executive 1.” The text message included a link to an EcommerceBytes article titled “eBay CEO Devin Wenig Earns 152 Times That of Employees.” On May 10, according to the Journal article, Wenig texted, “Take her down.”

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Wenig has not been charged. The eBay release notes that an internal investigation found that some of Wenig’s statements were “inappropriate,” but that there was no evidence he knew of the actions taken by those charged or approved them.

Wenig, a former CEO of news and financial data company Thomson Reuters, has issued a statement saying, “I have spent my career defending press freedoms. What these charges allege is unconscionable.”

How he squares “Take her down” with a commitment to defending the freedom of the press is what I would like to know.

Bullying tactics backed by billions in revenue

Wenig resigned from his position as eBay CEO in September 2019. At the time, it appeared his resignation stemmed from an ongoing controversy within the company’s board of directors regarding a strategy for eBay, whose ecommerce market share has steadily declined as that of arch-rival Amazon.com Inc. has increased.

We now know that eBay was aware of a criminal investigation that led it to fire several senior executives. Whether that had anything to do with Wenig’s departure is a question that remains to be answered.

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Despite its struggles, eBay remains a large company that reported revenue of $10.8 billion in 2019. I have no idea what the Steiners make from EcommerceBytes, but I doubt their revenue is measured in billions.

Nonetheless, they have one big thing going for them: the truth. I’ve followed EcommerceBytes for years and I know it has been an honest voice for merchants that sell on eBay, Amazon and other marketplaces.

Companies that are struggling, as eBay has been for years, often don’t like to hear the truth. They sometimes lash out at critics, although I can’t recall a campaign as despicable as the one eBay executives allegedly organized.

Today, the six individuals charged with organizing this campaign are facing serious criminal charges. And Wenig is long gone from eBay.

As for Ina and David Steiner, they’re still telling the truth as they see it. I trust all who defend the freedom of the press will support their right to operate free of harassment.

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Don Davis is editor at large at Digital Commerce 360.

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