Tech Platforms Urged To Crack Down On COVID-19 Related Price Gouging

Tech companies should create and enforce policies aimed at preventing price-gouging of products related to COVID-19, a group of state attorneys general say.

“We believe you have an ethical obligation and duty to help your fellow citizens in this time of need by doing everything in your power to stop price gouging in real-time,” the officials, led by Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shaprio, say in letters sent Wednesday to Amazon, Walmart, Craigslist, Facebook and eBay.

The letters cite several examples of price-gouging uncovered by reporters, including a 2-liter bottle of hand sanitizer being sold on Craigslist for $250, and an 8-ounce bottle being sold on Facebook for $40.

“While many of these items have since been removed, they were available for sale, and consumers are harmed when they purchase heavily marked-up products,” the letter states.

The law enforcement officials are asking the companies to take several steps, including setting “fair pricing” policies, and enabling consumers to report price gouging incidents.

“A simple tool requesting the name of the vendor, the item for sale, the alleged unfair price, and the state of residents of the complainant would quickly and efficiently allow you to identify and freeze or remove truly bad actors,” the letter states.

Earlier this month, Sen. Ed Markey questioned Amazon over price-gouging of hand sanitizer and other products related to the outbreak.

Amazon said this week it has removed more than 500,000 offers due to COVID-19 price gouging, and has suspended more than 3,900 sellers in the U.S.

The attorneys general are asking for the platforms' voluntary cooperation. If the tech companies refuse to take action, it's not clear whether the officials can require the platforms to take measures. Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act broadly protects tech platforms from liability for ads created by third parties. For that reason, numerous judges have dismissed lawsuits brought against Craigslist and other web companies over illegal ads created by users.

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