The online marketplace Etsy has been flooded with activity since the pandemic’s onset as millions flocked to online shopping to stave off lockdown blues. However, that pandemic-fueled growth is also highlighting Etsy’s struggle to moderate what goes up for sale on its platform. A recent Insider investigation found roughly 800 listings that violate the company’s prohibited items policy, including pet remains, pornographic material, weapons, and a slew of mass-produced products being passed off as handmade items.
Some of the examples the outlet found included mummified puppy remains, steel-spiked clubs, brass knuckles, preserved kitten fetuses, roach clips, poisonous plants, bogus remedies for covid-19, tumors and other ailments, and uranium ore, a radioactive substance. Insider said it identified dozens of listings of products made from elephant ivory, the trade of which is largely banned across the globe after poachers drove some species to the brink of extinction to harvest their highly valued tusks. Magical “spells” promising wealth, love, and good health were also widely available for sale, as were counterfeit products from designer brands like Louis Vuitton, Yves Saint Laurent, and Gucci.
While some of these products aren’t necessarily illegal, they clearly violate Etsy’s prohibited items policy, which bans the sale of drug paraphernalia, mature content, and dangerous items, just to name a few. The platform prohibits “items that are presented as weapons or to be used to inflict violence,” though it does make exceptions for “tools,” “an unusable decorative item,” and “foam, rubber, or plastic reproduction weapons for training or roleplay.” According to Etsy’s rules, everything sold on its site “must be handmade, vintage, or a craft supply,” but it seems many sellers routinely flout that rule, offering mass-produced products likely bought in bulk from third-party suppliers. In an interview with Insider, Etsy said that it uses a combination of automated and manual tools to detect illicit listings and also relies on user reporting.
When reached for comment, Insider reported that Etsy deleted the listings in question and committed to ramping up its systems for detecting illicit content. Etsy reiterated this pledge in a blog post on Thursday, in which the company announced plans to spend “at least” $40 million to bolster its policy enforcement systems. This investment will go toward expanding the coverage of its content-review teams “tenfold” by the end of the year and rolling out new auto-suppression tools that incorporate image recognition and geo-based targeting, among other initiatives, according to Etsy’s trust and safety team lead Corinne Pavlovic.
“Through these investments in human capital and proprietary technology, we are scaling our enforcement measures to prepare Etsy for its next chapter of growth, ensuring that sellers of unique and handcrafted items continue to find a welcoming home and buyers continue to have a delightful experience shopping from makers and curators,” she wrote.
However, noticeably missing from this announcement is an explanation for why these banned items seemed to have gone under Etsy’s radar for so long. This is especially concerning because Etsy’s business model hinges on transaction fees, so the company receives a cut of every sale on its platform, prohibited products included.
Even more troubling still, it looks like Etsy’s crackdown in response to the investigation was just a drop in the bucket. After Etsy deleted the listings the outlet identified, Insider reports that it was still able to find several others for ivory products, brass knuckles, mandrake roots, tools for using cannabis concentrates, mass-produced products, and other banned items. We poked around Etsy’s marketplace as well, and within a few minutes found a bunch of prohibited products, including a vintage ivory bracelet put up for sale as recently as March, several weapons that are plainly marketed as such, and a shop with more than 1,000 reviews selling all manner of spells for attracting love, wealth, and what have you. We’ve reached out to Etsy for comment and will update this blog once we hear back.
As online shopping surged amid the pandemic, so too did Etsy’s platform. In its integrated annual report, the company said its yearly revenue more than doubled in 2020 to $1.7 billion, and the number of items for sale on its site grew to more than 90 million.
But that ballooning success can come with a slew of new headaches, as many online platforms have learned the hard way over the last year (looking at you, Zoom). In 2020, Etsy received 4 million reports of potentially non-compliant listings, a 400% increase compared to 2019, it said Thursday. According to Etsy, the bulk of these flags, roughly 80%, were generated by its automated systems.
Etsy sure seems prepared to throw a lot of money at this problem, but let’s just hope it yields some concrete results. Because profiting off the sale of pet remains, illegal ivory products, and quasi-legal goods is definitely not a great look.