eBay squaring off in legislative dot-com battle
Louisiana retailers could lose big
By Jeremy Alford -
Jun 01, 2006
BATON ROUGE -- There are business and industry folks up at the Capitol, as well as lobbyists for health care and video poker. But very rarely do you ever see eBay’s people, as they might be called, looking out for the interests of the popular auction website.
Well, lately, they’ve been all over the place, like old Peter Frampton records or Smurf collectibles. That’s because this is the session of eBay, and the Wall Street darling is locking horns on a number of issues.
The company is opposing one piece of legislation that would require that certain eBay users – trading assistants, who sell items for third parties – be licensed by the Louisiana Auctioneers Licensing Board. Another measure, which they support, would allow concert and sporting tickets to be sold over the Internet at any price.
To shore up backing for their stances, the corporate flacks from eBay hosted a “Main Street Meeting” in Baton Rouge for roughly 50 high-volume sellers from Louisiana.
While access to the meeting was denied for this publication, an agenda noted a working lunch with eBay’s lobbyist and large, colorful billboards displayed in the meeting hall outlined a few “barriers to e-commerce” – namely a couple of bills moving through the legislative process and other matters that have been debated in recent years.
Prior to the meeting, several participants sat around tables placed in a U-formation facing a large presentation screen. Some people whispered softly to their neighbor, while others were in the throws of a feverish debate over whether the Legislature “had the guts” to get in the middle of their business.
One man kept to himself, throwing in the air and catching, over and over, a small stuffed toy that was placed on the table in front of every participant. It was a plush capitol building with a huge smiley face, sprouting arms and legs that were covered with what appeared to be sleeves and legs from a miniature blue power suit. The feet were adorned with tiny brown dress shoes.
Most in attendance were invited through an email notice. eBay has been sending out digital updates all year. One warned that “nearly every eBay seller in Louisiana is at risk” due to the auctioneer bill, although the legislation would exempt essentially all sellers except trading assistants.
It’s no surprise that Bonita Dupuis of New Iberia, who sells designer clothes she buys on clearance through eBay and her Internet business YourClearanceShopper.com, thought the law would be applied across the board.
“From what I understand, it will impact everyone,” she said. “I don’t think anyone on eBay should have to deal with this. Other people in the state doing the same thing aren’t required to do this. Why should we be any different?”
Of course, if the bill does pass, there’s no telling how it will be interpreted by Louisiana’s bureaucrats.
“Maybe the bill is just too vague on who it impacts,” she added.
Corporate officials from eBay encouraged sellers to lobby lawmakers at the Capitol following the meeting, Dupuis said, and even drove them to downtown Baton Rouge. But many, like her, passed on that opportunity.
John Embrey of New Orleans, a direct seller who uses eBay to support his custom, handmade knife hobby, said he found out a couple of weeks ago that the bill would only apply to trading assistants, although previous communications from eBay had indicated the legislation would be further reaching than that.
“I still don’t know what to believe anymore,” Embrey said.
When told that many thought the legislation would impact all sellers and not just trading assistants like eBay had communicated, Michelle Peacock, director of government relations and global operations at eBay, insisted that the company’s stance has been accurate throughout the debate.
It’s the Louisiana Auctioneers Licensing Board that has been understating the impact, she said, they are the ones implying limited applicability.
Sherrie Wilks, who runs the Louisiana Auctioneers Licensing Board and testified in front of a legislative committee earlier this month, has been touting statistics to support the proposed licensing requirement – according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, roughly 63 percent of all the Internet-related complaints they received last year were connected to e-commerce fraud.
In short, it’s a safety issue for the board.
If the measure is ultimately adopted, it would cost those impacted roughly $350 per year to become an official auction business through the state, and another $100 or more to purchase several thousand dollars worth of bond coverage.
The eBay meeting last week also addressed an issue that may intensify with time, although it is old hat to those in the know. The Streamlined Sales Tax Project, which was created by a number of state governments, including Louisiana, is an effort to collect sales taxes on items sold over the Internet, among other things.
“I think this is even more important,” Embry said. “I am more worried about the government coming in and charging everyone sales taxes on the items I’m selling. But there doesn’t seem to be a big enough push going on to oppose this. I guess it’s a fight for another day.”