In Box

Unruly Auctions

When an anonymous Californian posted a MiG-21 fighter jet for sale on www.ebay.com last November, the prospect of the plane falling into terrorist hands apparently didn’t rankle U.S. authorities too much. After all, a foreign buyer would need a hard-to-obtain export license to cart the prize away. But the MiG’s sale did stir unease over ...

When an anonymous Californian posted a MiG-21 fighter jet for sale on www.ebay.com last November, the prospect of the plane falling into terrorist hands apparently didn’t rankle U.S. authorities too much. After all, a foreign buyer would need a hard-to-obtain export license to cart the prize away.

But the MiG’s sale did stir unease over the wild and wooly nature of online auctions, which increasingly feature illicit goods like stolen car parts, unregistered firearms, and purloined antiquities. EBay alone adds 1 million items to its site daily, and smaller sites, from www.auctiondawg.com to www.zbestoffer.com, oversee thousands of transactions daily. Neither law enforcement nor site operators can monitor every sale, especially when buyer and seller are continents apart.

Australia, for example, is having problems with the purchase of automatic weapons from auctioneers based in North America. Aussie customs seizures of banned handguns increased 2,500 percent between 1997 and 2001.

Online auctions can be a jurisdictional nightmare. "Depending on the source of the item, it could be legal or it could be illegal," says Simon Habel, director of the World Wildlife Federation’s program in animal-parts trafficking, noting that the ivory trade in particular presents problems. "If you’re selling within a particular state and [the ivory predates the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species], it could be completely legitimate. Then, when you go internationally, the situation gets much more complex."

Given the sheer volume of merchandise for sale, the best cops can do is react to tips. The largest repository for such information is the Internet Fraud Complaint Center (IFCC), www.ifccfbi.gov, operated by the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation. "We’re informed on a daily basis about some kind of contraband being for sale," says Steve Anderson, a special supervisory agent at the ifcc, who adds that other nations have indicated a readiness to establish similar centers. The problem is, outside of the United States and a handful of other Western nations, police are ill-trained in cyberinvestigation techniques. (The international crime-fighting consortium Interpol refused to comment for this article.)

With law enforcement stymied, the pursuit of auction scofflaws has become a private-sector matter. The Business Software Alliance, for example, has enlisted independent investigators to hunt down bootlegged copies of programs hawked online. Auction sites themselves are experimenting with so-called geolocation technology, which can identify the nation from which a bid originates. A buyer based in Osaka, for example, could be blocked from bidding on an air rifle, which is illegal in Japan.

Cyberlibertarians abhor geolocation technology, charging that it’s contrary to the Internet’s borderless spirit. Perhaps, but the prospect of a Stinger missile changing hands doesn’t sit so well, either.

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