Saturday, November 28, 2009

eBay Justice - Online Dispute Resolution


Quick, how many ways to formally resolve employment disputes can you name? Let's see... civil litigation in state courts, federal courts, mediation, arbitration, federal enforcement agencies (EEOC), state enforcement agencies (PHRC), local enforcement agencies, and pre-dispute contractual arrangements. Did I miss any? I'm sure I missed several, but one I intentionally omitted was Online Dispute Resolution.

Online auction site, eBay, has been using the "wisdom of crowds" for years. One important feature on eBay is the ability of customers to leave publicly accessible feedback on sellers. Then eBay aggregates the data to help buyers make a decision. Examples include: 100% Positive Feedback, Top-rated Seller, and Ships Items Quickly. Of course, not all feedback is so glowing.

The sellers on eBay vary from one-item sellers, to casual hobbyists, to full-on Internet retailers. Given that some of the sellers use eBay as their actual career, the feedback can be extraordinarily important to their livelihood. So what happens when someone leaves feedback that the seller believes is unfair? Is there any recourse or must the seller rely on honest (presumably positive) feedback to set the record straight?

eBay India offers sellers another option: eBay Community Court. The online dispute resolution system employs a straightforward four-step process:
  • Start Appeal - Seller writes why the negative feedback is unfair;
  • Collect Views - Person who left the review is asked to justify their comments;
  • Jury Voting - A group of 21 online eBay users votes on whether the feedback should be removed; and then
  • Final Decision - If the jury votes in favor of the seller, eBay will remove the negative feedback.
It's brilliant in its simplicity! It also employs a similar structure to that used by our courts: one side presents its case; the other side presents its case; the jury decides; and the authorities enforce the verdict.

Is this the future of dispute resolution? Perhaps the online marketplace is a more receptive (and more appropriate) venue than the more personal workplace. Many employment issues are also far more serious than "unfair negative feedback" from a customer. For example, I don't recommend that employers send their sexual harassment complaints to an online jury of co-workers... but we could see Online Dispute Resolution creeping into our already vast array of justice systems.

HT: Hon. Bruce T. Cooper, Online Dispute Resolution Comes of Age(.pdf), The Practical Litigator, July 2009.

Image: A photograph of eBay's Whitman Campus by Stephen Arnold, available here on Wikimedia Commons.