eBay’s Magical Ban: The Problem With Selling Speech

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  August 17, 2012 — 33 Comments

Internet auction house eBay recently released their Fall 2012 Seller Update, which, starting in September, prohibits the sale of divination services (including tarot readings), spells, tutoring services, and potions. The reason for this move, according to eBay, is to “build confidence in the marketplace for both buyers and sellers.”

“Transactions in these categories often result in issues between the buyer and seller that are difficult to resolve. To help build confidence in the marketplace for both buyers and sellers, eBay is discontinuing these categories and including the items on the list of prohibited items.”

In short, if you’re dissatisfied with the spell to give you a big butt, it’s hard to quantify if the “product” had been delivered, and what the proper expectations on booty enhancement magic is. Because of the (usually inadvertently) comical nature of many of the spells  being sold on eBay, long a source of easy snark on the Internet, sites like Mashable, The Mary SueJezebel, and even mainstream news outlets, have been having a bit of fun with the news.

“In its 2012 Fall Seller Update, the online marketplace said it was banning all sales of supernatural goods and services, exiling its witchy and wizardly clientele to the wilds of Craigslist and other Web-based Diagon Alleys.”

It should be noted before we go any further that magical items, physical objects that have an attributable value, are not banned under this change. Spokeswoman Johnna Hoff told Tiffany Hsu at the Los Angeles Times that such items would be allowed in most cases.

“It’s important to note that items that have a tangible value for the item itself and may also be used in metaphysical rites and practices (ie  jewelry, crystals, incense, candles, and books) are allowed in most cases.”

Which means most of the products in the Wicca and Paganism section of eBay are safe, at least for now. A comfort, no doubt, to the many Pagan vendors and shop-owners who supplement their income by placing items on the site. However, the banning of spellwork, and especially tarot readings, should be explored with greater depth. Pagans in the community seems somewhat split over this move by eBay, some, like Patti Wigington, About.com’s Paganism & Wicca Guide, see this as a smart move by the company.

“…this isn’t a case of religious discrimination at all – it’s a case of a business realizing that customers are being made victims of fraud by unscrupulous sellers – and putting practices in place to prevent the problem from continuing. It does not say “No Wiccans, No Pagans, No Druids.” It says no magic, spells or potions, or prayers — that’s an entirely separate thing. Personally, I’m a little sad Ebay has done this, because it means fewer things for me to make fun of, but it’s definitely a smart business decision.”

Others, meanwhile, see this a chilling move that could start a domino effect, marginalizing tarot readers and magicians from mainstream commerce sites. Some have pointed out that PayPal is owned by eBay, and a similar shift in their policies to be more in line with up-and-coming companies like Square, could have a disastrous impact on small Pagan business that rely on divination services as an important part of their income (it should be noted that Google Checkout used to ban “occult goods,” but don’t anymore). Patheos blogger Kris Bradley, while acknowledging the rationale for this new prohibition, is worried that companies like Etsy might soon follow eBay’s lead.

“I admit I’m a bit torn on the subject.  While I see the possible beginning of the end for sellers on sites like this, I won’t be sad to see the sham “spell casters” go, and the end of taking advantage of desperate people with promises of something that can’t possibly be delivered.  As I sell products of a magical variety, I definitely don’t want to lose my Etsy shop.”

As a private business, eBay, and other online retailers are free to limit what product and services they’ll allow. That said, it is troubling that managing complaints and fraud resulted in a total ban of selling divination and magical work. Recent courtroom decisions have leaned towards defining divination, tarot readings, and other psychic services as protected speech, which could have actually helped push eBay away from trying to simply regulate it on their site. After all, who wants to be the ultimate arbiter of what sorts of speech are acceptable, and which kinds are not? Being in the business of selling speech and expression will always be volatile, and it looks like eBay wanted out, the question now is what the ramifications of this move will be for Internet commerce.

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Jason Pitzl-Waters

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  • Amaranthe

    There are ways to get money other than Paypal. Just not many. But every time something like this is imposed on any community, we find a way out of it. Erotica writers are working on a website that doesn’t use Paypal to sell their work after Paypal effectively removed 2 of our biggest distributors with moral policing. I’m sure the same will happen here.

  • Chris

    I’m an advocate for divination, but not fortune telling. For instance, I was a phone psychic back when it was popular, and I had an honest way of going about it. I had a regular clientele and I limited their talking time with me. I had a cut-off point if I felt the caller was addicted. In the same company was a Cuban family, about six adults in it, who would rotate shifts, 24 hours a day, and say whatever they could to keep the caller on the line for as long as possible. The company manager found out they were selling $100 curse-removing candles which eventually got them kicked off the network. I quit the hotline after the callers were threatening self-harm and suicide if their boyfriends/girlfriends didn’t come back.

    Ebay can’t sort the honest from the dishonest so maybe this is their only solution.

    • Veracity

      I hear ya Chris. I used to work on a psychic hotline too back in the day, and I worked it the same way you did. My boss was a kind and gifted lady and let us perform our reading however we wished. If we weren’t getting anything, she would rather we admitted this to the called and ask them to call back and get another psychic than to keep them on the phone just for the $$$.

      Then she moved on to another project and gave the running of the hotline to her sons. They immediately imposed a lot of rules, starting with the demand to get the caller’s info in the first 5 minutes of the call (for repeat business) and to keep them on the line as long as possible, no matter what. And that’s when I quit.

      I can’t blame eBay for making this decision as it is hard to arbitrate something intangible. Having been through their process or arbitration as both a buyer and a seller, it’s hard enough when the product is tangible. I just hope that since they’ve made this stand that they follow-through on other intangibles. This will cut the sales of a lot of “services”, since value of service is subjective, but tarot readings and spells and potions are only the beginning of a long list of sales that this rule should fairly apply to.

      I will only feel pagans are discriminated against if they don’t apply it to anything else.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Helmsman-Of-Inepu/100002281476991 Helmsman Of-Inepu

    If eBay wants to avoid fraud, they should ban motor vehicles from their listings. I know people who have flown across the country to pick up a car in “drive home” condition that had a tree growing through the engine compartment. eBay does nothing, or delivers the lightest taps on the wrist.

  • boop

    Etsy apparently did follow suit

  • http://twitter.com/thelettuceman Marc

    Ebay has more problems at the corporate level that they should be focusing on in tandem with this. The entire service is garbage and open to abuse.

  • Tau’ri

    In the news article, it was pointed out that Ebay would NOT be banning things like “holy water” and a commentor wanted to know why this was different from potions. Good point. If it’s a Chrisitan “potion” its okay, but if it’s a NON-Christian “potion” then it’s banned? If that isn’t discrimination, I don’t know what is.

    • RevEllen

      I believe the difference is that “holy water” only instills a blessing and doesn’t purport to “do” anything. That’s left up to the believer. However potions are created with a stated purpose (i.e. Love Potion). If a buyer doesn’t get the result from the stated purpose, they are upset. I see that’s where trouble ensues. I don’t think it’s really religious discrimination. It’s how items are described and the claims they make for them.

      • kenneth

        It’s a mighty thin line. Water from Lourdes and all sorts of other Catholic bric-a-brac is sold with the clear expectation of healing power. Lots of religious orders also sell blessings, or to offer Mass intentions for the dead for a donation etc. Not sure how many of them vend through Ebay, but it will be interesting to see if this new policy falls on all religions equally.

      • WhiteBirch

        But I thought “blessings” were explicitly included in the list of things banned? So where’s the difference again?

      • http://www.facebook.com/simon.tailor.92 Simon Tailor

        holy water is as much a faith based potion as any pagan potion. my understanding of the different potions is that they don’t “give” you anything, they bring you added luck in a given area. holy water as i learned in church protects you from evil, “blesses” you, washes away sin, and anything else the church decides to say. holy water=potion. to say it isn’t is to say my gods better than yours, and that is religious discrimination.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=685041384 Fanny Fae

    It is very sad that some within the Wiccan / Pagan/ Witch etc. community seem to look at this as just another example that solidifies their position of being perpetual victims. Honestly, this is about business. It gets very tiresome to hear the tales from my clients of how they have been scammed and taken advantage of by unscrupulous hucksters. Spellwork, readings, hand blending incenses, herbal formulas, etc. is no game it is not a dodge so that people don’t have to be responsible because they are being disingenuous from the start.

    To borrow the idea from Sarah Lawless from the Witch of Forest Grove blog and Stang and Cauldron shop, the worst thing you can do is to make a witche’s flying ointment that doesn’t work. The same can be said about non-Pagan / Witch clientelle that come to us for help and plunk down money: If they feel they have been bilked, you have a customer service problem on your hands. eBay, no doubt has had plenty of problems with people selling nothing of tangible value. I can’t say in this particular case, I don’t absolutely agree with them. Making false claims is a very serious charge, no matter what objection about religious discrimination you want to raise.

    I would note that herbalists and alternative medical practitioners have had to make standard disclaimers on all books, products, etc. to avoid being prosecuted under the law. It’s time for us as a Community to step up and make certain that integrity is at the core of all of our dealings. Without that, making our beliefs and practices the butt of jokes is quite frankly deserved.

  • Baruch Dreamstalker

    I understand Ebay’s concern. If the service is wholly verbal and its effect is non-material, who is to say if it was delivered as promised?

  • Kilmrnock

    Not that i totaly agree with Ebay’s ban i do understand it . There is alot of room for fraud and deceptive practices in selling potions and spellwork online . Not that every one selling such services would , but i would think many do .These type of services are ripe for dishonest , shady operaters or sellers . Kilm

  • The Witch

    The booty spell is nothing I would buy, but I don’t believe it should be banned, the seller even lists diclaimers… It’s a spell, not plastic surgery, it’s a spirtual, not physical, it worries me that ebay is not respecting the spirtual side of its buyers/sellers. There is so much junk being sold on ebay. They will say “high quality” luxurious, grade A+ and they are anything but that, I bought a $2 shower cap and it was made from a black garage bag, but that’s what you get for $2 being sent all the way from China.. Ebay is taking away the buyer’s freedom to decide for themselves, what’s next? Will they crack down on alternative medicine, because it is not FDA approved, and there are too many apparent complaints of it not working? Buyers should use discretion, If someone is not happy with their product, they should have researched it more before buying; does the seller have good feedback? if the ad is not discriptive enough, ask questions, the only time you should complain is when its absoulute fraud and you were CLEARY lied to or decieved. I have only returned 2 items in my days of ebaying, an earring listed as white gold but I recieved them they were marked as silver(“925″), and a laptop with microsoft office, but it was an illegally burned copy of it.

    In both cases I contacted the seller and we worked things out, they understood my reasoning for wanting to return the items and paid all shipping, I did not leave negative feedback or complain to ebay, because they handled it well, its the internet people… there is some risk involved…

  • Siegfred Smith

    I’m a little sad about it. Over the years, I’ve met several Pagan friends via Ebay who contacted me to ask about a seller’s services that I’ve purchased. For me, it is pretty easy to figure out who the scammers were and I’ve been able to meet decent people.
    The potion ban bothers me quite a bit. I’m upset enough to consider putting up a website just to share family potion recipes so that people who depended on others to make them can learn to do so on their own. At least we can still buy the herbs on Ebay.

  • Anne Newkirk Niven

    This step by a secular company highlights an ongoing issue for Paganism as a whole: how to separate the true psychic professionals from the flim-flam artists? Our magazines (SageWoman and Witches&Pagans) have long had guidelines that require three written references for all “personal service” ads (divination, psychic readers, etc) and forbid the advertising of spellwork for hire. We also forbid “unverifiable claims” (that “big booty” ad would be forbidden on both grounds). Interestingly enough, the vast majority of psychic readers and diviners who contact us to place ads thank us for these guidelines, and are happy to provide references. I think that eBay simply got tired of dealing with claims from unhappy clients of Lady Big Booty and her ilk.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Charles-Cosimano/613012064 Charles Cosimano

      Exactly the case. Let us say a psychic provider has a track record of 85% success. That leaves 15% failure. Now those failures can add up if a lot of them complain to ebay. The paperwork for processing those complaints costs time and time is money. The decision is not surprising at all, what is surprising is that it took so long.

  • Sunweaver

    It occurs to me that Christian Science practitioners might also have problems with this sort of thing. The way in which they pray to heal is very similar to spell work and I’d call it pretty powerful magick. Generally, a practitioner asks a small fee– which is built in to that culture. My very, very limited knowledge of Reiki tells me there are some similarities there. I don’t know if any Christian Science practitioners offer their services on eBay, but it’s worth mentioning.
    Anyhow, I’d call these kinds of practices a legitimate service for which the purveyor should expect payment.

    And then there are those who sell more dubious services. As has been mentioned before, it can be difficult for a company like eBay to discern the sham artists from the sincere practitioners, so it makes good business sense to toss the lot of it out.

    It’s a worrisome thing, though, and I hope it doesn’t lead to something worse.

  • http://www.facebook.com/vampi.aubrey Vampi Aubrey

    just do Etsy.com

  • Lēoht Sceadusawol

    Seems to me there is a niche opportunity here.

    If the ‘mainstream’ sites are stopping the provision of a service that has demand, others will be able to take opportunity and capitalise on it.

  • Matthias Greygone

    As I wait to go home, I watch the freedoms of man disappear,one by one. Each chip taken from the now misshapened statues of freedom, denies us our rights, including governing ourselves.

    • Wdayton

      Come on. This is not a case of our freedoms being threatened. They made this decision based on business, trying to prevent mass cases of very easy fraud. This is not a law; we have no ‘rights’ to sell things on Ebay. We need to focus our outrage and concern on government sponsored religious discrimination, not on a business making a fairly intelligent commercial decision. If they go on to ban actual, physical products, then I will be concerned. Until then I am much more worried about so many other, more egregious attacks on minority religions that have the backing and support of government bodies.

    • http://www.facebook.com/paganstar101 Cave Rat

      matthias, as a practicing pagan priest of over 15 years experience and an avid ebayer, i can be reasonably certain that this is not an attack on followers of the pagan ways, however it is an attempt by Ebay ( there are plenty of other trading sites on the WWW) to prevent blatant fraud, and to protect the customers of ebay from the shysters that prey on peoples insecurities and fears to make themselves easy money without considering the damage they do to the reputations of pagan traders and paganism in general, also a small matter that alot of people seem to forget, Ebay is a business, and they make decisions based on good business, and to comply with the laws of the countries in which they trade, this decision , i am sure was not taken to remove freedoms of people to make decisions for themselves , but to protect Ebay from repeated complaints that they are tacitly allowing fraudulent activity to occur, something that in many countries is ILLEGAL,

      • http://www.facebook.com/shadowulf.mccullough Shadowulf McCullough

        They basically took the snake oil salesman approach to it. Now is there a way around it for a legitimate reader yes there is there just has to be something tangible and has attributable value that the seller can receive as part of the service. (example of this is an astrological reading that comes with a in depth chart and full explanation mailed to the person with a nice cover folder )

  • Castus

    I’m a collector of paranormal entities, so I’m a little worried this may effect the trade, but overall I think this is a good move.

    • Lēoht Sceadusawol

      “a collector of paranormal entities”
      Is that another way of saying ‘soul trader’?

  • kittylu

    They can still sell magical candles and talismans with the extra markup for the spell or charge.

  • Debbie

    eBay had a lot of complaints from those that were selling the Spells, Tarot Readings and things of that nature well before this happened. Mainly was due to not being able to have Delivery Confirmation numbers attached to the sale. By not having this to upload you are penalized as a seller (90% must be uploaded to eBay’s site). In order to make it easier on eBay in my opinion they opted just to remove these sales. These services and products have been there for years, it just seems odd to me that all of a sudden now they are being removed only after the big uproar over the DC #’s.
    I talked to customer service about the DC situation and how I resolved the problem was to remove the service completely. I did not wish to have my Top Seller rating damaged and it was a loss of money for me.

    Now, with this new hoopla I worry over the oils and other products that I make that may be also banned. No potions or spell workings but they might just do that. I talked to CS about that yesterday and they were torn if they would be removed or not. So by mid September I will know for sure. If they are booted then my store front will be nearly closed as it carries mainly occult tangible items.

    I have been selling on there for years and I feel for those people that are being booted and loosing their money that they pay bills and feed their families with.

  • http://www.facebook.com/Carla.Marie86 Carla Marie Naydine VanKoughne

    By Law the “entertainment purposes only” tag is supposed to be applied to these listings… Which means that the buyers cannot hold the seller accountable for the service not meeting their expectations.. eBay is clearly advocating religious discrimination, and I have now switched all my art to Etsy as a result of this.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1678081929 Bill Wheaton

    Hm. interesting. Are they banning Life Coaches as well? Nothing too tangible there.

  • moondancer

    If Ebay wants to band potions than they should banded all potions not just one what fair for one is fair for the other

  • Ellie

    I have given Tarot readings via ebay, always with the proviso ‘full refund if not happy’ How can that contravene anything?