April 2, 2015
Last month, reports surfaced that artifacts such as ancient coins looted by jihadi groups, principally the Islamic State, from archeological sites in Iraq and Syria were appearing for sale on the auction website eBay [see IBTimes here, Fox News here, Daily Mail here].
While it is still unclear whether the coins were real or even whether they were sold, eBay took notice, says Jack Christin, eBay Associate General Council.
EBay does not patrol its site for posts of artifacts, but Christin says his team stays in close contact with outside experts and law-enforcement agencies to stop trafficking on the online auction site.
After reports of stolen artifacts being sold online, EBay contacted the State Department, which informed the company that “they would let us know if they’re seeing any activity,” Christin tells Syria Direct’s Moatasem Jamal and Dan Wilkofsky.
That doesn’t mean it won’t happen. If recent history is a guide, items looted by IS and other groups in Syria and Iraq won’t appear online for at least a couple of years, as was the case with artifacts looted during the Iraq war.
“Oftentimes the looting and theft takes place and then the items don’t show up in the stream of commerce until two or three or four years later.”
Q: Moutasem and I went on to eBay and did a quick search, typing in the word “Sumerian” and turned up about a dozen hits of artifacts. How does eBay know which postings on the site are illegal?
We have zero interest in the illicit sale of cultural artifacts or antiquities in eBay or any eBay site.
We work closely with a number of outside experts and agencies in the US and outside the US to identify any misuse of eBay and then take appropriate action. So in the case of the recent reports, we haven’t had any indication from our external partners that there are illicit sales of items that are related to recent activity of ISIS.
We constantly monitor what’s happening on all of our sites. When we get reports, we will look at the items and history, we’ll look at everything related to those items and then we’ll take appropriate action. When it comes to cultural goods, we really depend on the specific expertise of an external expert.
Q: It sounds like eBay has close relationships with different government law enforcement bodies and also with academics and outside experts, but does eBay itself have a team or a group of specialists who work on rooting out groups [that] are selling artifacts, or is that all outsourced or reliant on other people talking to you?
We have a policy enforcement group. I manage a group called Global Asset Protection, and I’ve been here ten and a half years. This group works with law enforcement agencies in a number of settings involving the misuse of eBay or PayPal and there’s a special group within the organization that has a policy enforcement function.
This is the group that manages our external relationships, our internal monitoring related to any prohibited items that may appear on eBay, and you can imagine there’s a wide array of things we prohibit from being sold on eBay, including cultural goods and historical artifacts that are illegally taken from their country of origin.
This team works closely with the US Department of State, going back several years, back to when items were being removed from Iraq during and after the Iraq War and showing up offline and online around the world and on eBay.
A couple of weeks ago, I was driving to work and heard the story on NPR here in the US about the activities of ISIS and the ruining and destruction of cultural goods that was happening. What we did is we reached out to our State Department contacts that day to simply say, “Look, if you guys are seeing any activity on eBay that is in any way related to ISIS activities in any part of the Middle East, please let us know because we obviously don’t want this activity within a hundred miles of an eBay website,” and, you know, the response we got back was they didn’t have anything to report but that they would certainly let us know if they’re seeing any activity, any listings that looked like they were actually items that were looted or taken by ISIS.
What they indicated to us is that oftentimes the looting and theft takes place and then the items don’t show up in the stream of commerce until two or three or four years later, that’s a phenomenon we saw with items taken from Iraq ten or eight years ago.
Q: It sounds like you haven’t been getting any reports that the items that were looted in Iraq and Syria, let’s say, last summer, that have been put on eBay. You haven’t been getting many reports either from the Iraqi authorities or from State or from any other body?
No, we haven’t.
You see activity happen and then action is taken, items are removed, and then we may not hear from that agency or that expert [who informed us of the illicit item] for two years, because there just isn’t activity that raises concerns, so the item that was brought up in recent reports—we’ve not had any contact about those listings.
Q: Assuming that a transaction did occur over your site, and let’s say someone didn’t get in contact with you, to what extent does eBay bear the responsibility for any illegal transactions that actually do occur that you are not informed of?
We put a lot of time and effort into enforcing our policies because we just have no interest in illegal sales taking place in the first place.
So our approach is to have the relationships, have the right policies in place, take appropriate action. We want to be notified immediately if there are any concerns about illegal cultural goods sales taking place, but even if the listing ended, and it ended a month ago, we would still encourage and welcome any contact from any agency or expert.
If it’s illicitly taken, we can take appropriate action and work with law enforcement and any outside expert to address that issue. It’s not like the minute the item sells, we sort of walk away from it.
Q: What sort of actions would eBay take in that case? Would you give the buyer’s information, for example, to law enforcement?
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