If you’re a low-level employee and believe what the company tells you about extreme actions being necessary to neutralize a threat, is that an excuse? If you’re the big boss and say “take her down” are you off the hook because you didn’t get into details? If your previous career involved doing “arguably unlawful” things, should your managers be able to plead innocence when you then go out and do unlawful things? How do you punish a corporation, anyway?
These questions will be considered this fall in three Boston courtrooms. In two of them, members of the eBay security team are being sentenced for stalking, witness tampering and other crimes. A total of seven former employees have pleaded guilty. The first perpetrator to appear before the judge said he was too drunk during his brief stint at eBay to understand what was going on. It worked: He got a lighter sentence.
In the final courtroom, something more complicated and far-reaching is happening. The Steiners are suing eBay, Mr. Wenig, who is no longer chief executive, and many others, saying the campaign against them was not the activity of a rogue team but something closer to official company policy.
EBay at that time was on the defensive, under pressure from a hedge fund to perform or else. Public criticism was not something the chief executive wanted to hear. It might cost him his job. He decided to stop it.
The Steiners are unlikely free speech champions. They started their publication, EcommerceBytes, during the dot-com boom more than 20 years ago. It is both a news site for online sellers and, in the comments, a forum for the merchants to express their sometimes cranky opinions — usually about eBay but Amazon and Etsy too. The blog, with articles like “Ebay CEO Devin Wenig Earns 152 Times That of Employees” and “Ebay Says New Shipping Screen Is Here to Stay,” was widely read at the company’s San Jose, Calif., headquarters.