THE UK's Information Commissioner is to investigate whether eBay are in breach of the Data Protection Act by obstructing the removal of customers' personal details from their website.
The move comes after a formal complaint from Simon Davies, director of Privacy International, a campaigning organisation devoted to human rights.
In his August 31 letter to the commissioner, Mr Davies accuses eBay.co.uk of deliberately "frustrating" people's efforts to delete their details. He further argues that eBay's blanket policy allowing them to disclose customers' details to third parties under their anti-fraud VeRO Programme goes too far and may even be insecure.
A spokesman for eBay was reported to have defended the company's policy strongly, denying any breach of the Data Protection Act. They argued that their help function clearly explained how users could close their accounts.
However, Privacy International are backing their claim with evidence of tests they conducted after registering on eBay. They say attempts to remove their details were obstructed by the lack of any clearly labelled delete account function as a default part of the account management page. "This is seen as being important both to Best Practice and to legal compliance," argues Mr Davies in his letter. "No such facility has been enabled by eBay.co.uk."
He described aspects of their lengthy and detailed efforts to remove their details as "impractical, if not impossible", and told how, towards the end of their research, they discovered a "deeply buried" direct link to a request box for account deletion.
Mr Davies further argues that as the size of eBay's customer base is a key element of the company's market value, obstructing the removal of accounts "has the effect, intentional or otherwise, of artificially inflating the customer base at the expense of data protection right".
He concludes his complaint with the following damning statement: "We believe that eBay's account deletion and disclosure arrangements breach key elements of the Data Protection Act.
No customer could reasonably be expected to invest the considerable time and effort required to investigate the site, nor in our view should any responsible company create such obstacles.
In our view it is in eBay's financial interest to hide the account deletion function, and thus they have acted in an entirely self-serving manner that denies millions of customers an important right."
By Ivan Macquisten