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When Robert Miller left British Telecom's (BT) in-house legal team to become eBay's first UK lawyer in 2001, his BT colleagues told him he was mad. The dotcom crash was underway and it seemed that an online auctioneer had the same chance of survival as other failures such as clickmango.com, boo.com or pets.com.
Four years later and people are using eBay to earn a full-time wage. eBay has more than $1bn (£540m) of goods being traded on its UK site, it has just made its first UK acquisition and Miller is still there, now with a team of six.
"The lawyers at BT told me I'd be back in six months, but I was eager to put in place the lessons I learnt there," says Miller.
BT has a reputation as a tough customer, so it may be a good thing that Miller has learnt a trick or two. Indeed, if one Bristol firm gets its way, he may be facing a barrage of claims from disenchanted eBay customers. Bevans (not to be confused with fellow Bristol firm Bevan Brittan) has set up a claims form on its website for eBay users who have not received their cash or goods, depending on whether they are buying or selling. The eBay line is that the business is purely an intermediary and that it is an individual's trading partner that is responsible for any goods or purchases that fail to arrive.
"We don't think the business model is as simple as that," says Tony Hughes, a partner at Bevans. "eBay's recruiting sellers and buyers. To recruit people they've got to encourage people to think that it's a safe environment to trade in. We argue that they encourage people to think that it's safer than it is."
The E-Commerce Directive defines eBay's legal liabilities and its obligations as a supplier, but eBay takes little responsibility for users' misfortunes. However, the company claims to have invested heavily in the area of safety and says it employs more than 1,000 people devoted to combating fraud. "I'm confident we're fulfilling our legal obligations," insists Miller.
While Bevans hopes to get enough people together to launch a class action against eBay, the company does settle some disputes in the small claims court. "There's an argument for [companies such as eBay] to be regulated better, although I don't pretend that regulation would be easy to draft," says Hughes. "One of the problems is that the market is distorted. eBay has a virtual monopoly. It's possible that there are competition issues and it's the customers who suffer in a monopoly situation."
eBay's legal team has four lawyers. It is also responsible for public affairs and, in March 2004, Alison Scowen was recruited from Direct Line Insurance to head the public affairs team. There is one commercial and one IP lawyer. Scowen briefs the Home Office on eBay and how it works. Miller says the Government wants to be sure the company is cooperating with Government and law enforcement.
The department also houses an ex-Scotland Yard detective who is eBay's law enforcement relationship manager (it employs ex-policemen in all its regional operations). If the police want information on items or sellers, so long as the request complies with the Data Protection Act, then that information is passed on.
While eBay says it does its best to protect users, it also defends IP owners. Miller's team is responsible for a service called the Verified Rights Owner (VeRO) programme. "It's a notice and takedown service, which allows rights owners to notify eBay if they're aware of the offering of brands that are counterfit or unauthorised; 11,000 rights owners, including Microsoft, Adobe and the BPI [British Phonographic Industry] use it," explains Miller.
eBay.co.uk is owned and operated by Swiss company eBay International, which is itself owned by Nasdaq-listed eBay Inc. It employs 8,000 people worldwide, with just 80 of those in the UK. The company owns all the EU sites and Miller reports to the head of legal of the Swiss company Geoffrey Brigham, as well as the general manager of eBay UK Douglas McCallum. There are more than 100 lawyers globally. "I work on the UK, EU and global teams," says Miller. "It's one big legal team, but eBay allows its local businesses to run locally."
Miller and his team try to keep as much work as possible in-house. "Olswang were being used when I arrived at eBay," he says. "It was a bit embarrassing, in fact. Once news got out that I was coming here I was inundated with lunch and dinner offers from all the leading e-commerce law firms. I gave Olswang a chance and they've never let me down."
Other than Olswang, only Kemp Little, on HR, and Taylor Wessing get a look-in. Olswang advised eBay on its first UK acquisition last week (18 May). eBay's international classifieds group Kijiji acquired London-based Gumtree. com, an advertising site used mainly by antip-odeans and South African ex-pats. Olswang commercial partner Clive Gringras and corporate partner Tina Cowen advised eBay.
With their parents and probably their grandparents now logging on to trade everything from fossils to used underwear, Miller's BT mates are no longer calling him mad. Some may even admit to being a little jealous of the lawyer at the company that is fast becoming a global phenomenon.
Director of legal and public affairs
|Employees||80 in the UK and 8,000 globally|
|Legal capability||Four in the UK and 100-plus globally|
|Director of legal and public affairs||Robert Miller|
|Reporting to||Head of legal at eBay International Geoffrey Brigham and eBay UK general manager Douglas McCallum|
|Main law firms||Kemp Little, Olswang and Taylor Wessing|