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In 2008 Michael Steadman of Cape Canaveral, Florida purchased a clock from Elliot Miller for $44. He was unhappy to receive, by three shipments, what he believed were the incompatible parts of different instruments and filed a complaint with eBay’s buyer protection programme.

He received his money back but chose to warn other potential buyers with feedback stating that Miller was a “bad seller with the ethics of a used car salesman”.

He considered that the end of the matter until he was issued with a court summons in February 2009. Mr Miller, a lawyer who has been an eBay member since 2003, was sufficiently upset by the comment that he sued Steadman, claiming damages for ruining his 100 per cent feedback rating and harming his “commercial reputation”. Mr Miller states in the lawsuit that the clock was ‘plainly offered for sale with the following language: “We cannot give you any guarantees and must offer it on an as-is, where-is basis only”.

The case is now in the hands of the Miami-Dade County Court but Mr Steadman has told reporters the case has already cost him $7000 in legal fees. “It’s not safe to say anything online. You don’t have a freedom of speech. The laws don’t work for us.”

In the week when eBay officially launched the new Buyer Protection programme announced last year, regular buyers in the US are asking if the feedback system can work when an apparently honest assessment of a transaction risks legal action. Online chatrooms were full of reaction to the story.

“If people are not free to post accurate descriptions about their transactions how will others know if they should deal with a particular seller?” was one typical response.

Mr Steadman now says “I warn everyone that goes online not to leave feedback.”