Taobao.com, the largest online marketplace in China, is facing a headache following a report that some of the shops using its platform are selling illegal products like daggers and electric shock batons.
Various illegal tools are being sold on Taobao, Beijing Times reported on December 10.
From November 12 to December 8, some 564 shoppers visited a Taobao shop to buy an item identified as a multifunctional torch, but that is actually an electric shock baton, the Beijing-based newspaper said.
Taobao responded by saying that it conducts supervision all the time but only inspects by checking the key words displayed in online stores' descriptions.
It is almost impossible for the e-commerce platform to supervise what these shops are actually selling offline, Zhao Nige, a member of the PR staff with taobao.com, told the Global Times.
"We have staff to do the checking work, but if this illegal trading takes place offline or by using other chat software, we can hardly find them and (need) the public to report it to us," Zhao said.
There is a reporting button on the webpage of each Taobao store. "Shoppers can report these shops to us if they find them handling illegal business," Taobao said in a statement sent to the Global Times.
"If there is evidence saying these shops are selling banned products, Taobao will freeze their accounts on the platform," the company also explained.
Experts said it exposes the problem of a lack of effective supervision of online trading, and called for new mechanisms to be introduced to address this.
Business under disguise
Taobao has a database of over 40,000 banned goods, including pornographic and military items, or potentially toxic materials, according to the statement sent to the Global Times.
Purchase of banned products like daggers requires permission from public security departments, and any institution must comply with regulations to sell them, Xiong Liesuo, a lawyer with Beijing Xiongzhi Law Firm, told the Global Times.
Police and soldiers can order these products from designated institutions if they have the necessary purchase permits, and the products cannot be sold without a license, Xiong said.
But it seems some Taobao shops are breaking the law by selling banned products without a license. To avoid being found out, the shops use pictures of standard products in their shop webpage descriptions and ask potential buyers to chat with them via other online messenger software, instead of Aliwangwang, the instant messenger developed by Tabao's parent company Alibaba Group.
"You can visit my QQ space and there are photos of the 'real products,'" a shop owner whose Taobao shop is promoting sales of "functional torches" told the Global Times by QQ. "We cannot chat via Aliwangwang; you know the rules of the game."
By chatting via Aliwangwang, there will be records of trades of banned products. Also, the packages are not delivered by airmail, as that involves stricter security checks, the man said.
According to the shop owner, he sells over 200 electric shock batons a day and one of the products with a price tag of 300 yuan ($48) is the most popular one.
"The baton, made of aluminum alloy, has 15 million volts and can be used for three to four years," the man said, noting that it can be used to light cigarettes or administer electric shocks to people.
On November 25, a woman in Tianjin was attacked by someone using a needle gun. The woman felt drowsy after being hit by the needle, and police confirmed that there was anesthetic in the needle tube.
The Beijing Times found out that small guns that can fire these needles were also available on taobao.com, but under different names.
"Various obscure descriptions of the products make supervision by Taobao very difficult," Zhao with Taobao told the Global Times.
Most buyers of banned products are underage people, who are curious and lack awareness of the law, Wang Kaiyu, executive director of the Chinese Sociological Association (CSA), told the Beijing Times.
However, Chinese laws stipulate that buyers will be punished even if they buy banned products for self-defense. "Penalties range from a warning and fines to detainment for a certain period of time," Lawyer Xiong told the Global Times.
Last month, a man from Daye, Central China's Hubei Province was detained for three days, people.com.cn reported in November, after he was found with a police electric shock baton in the trunk of his car. The man said he paid 400 yuan for it and bought it only for self-defense.
Taobao sellers would also be legally responsible if there are any criminal consequences related to the products they sell, lawyer Xiong said.
Not only Taobao
It is not the first time that Taobao has found shops on its platform selling prohibited goods.
Illegal sales of medicine, tobacco and stolen bank cards were reported earlier this year. According to China E-Commerce Research Center, some 10,000 shops on taobao.com are closed or suspended daily, as a result of complaints from customers or penalties from Taobao for violation of rules.
In China, which has roughly 27 million small and medium-sized enterprises, Taobao plays an important role, with some 6 million shops using its platform, Li Chengdong, an analyst at paidai.com, a Beijing-based e-commerce industry portal, told the Global Times.
But the management and supervision of these online shops is not only a challenge for Taobao, Li said, as the public can still get access to these products through other online channels.
Taobao said in the statement sent to the Global Times that it has built a cooperative mechanism with police, quality and medical supervisory departments to address the sales of controlled items.
Professor Wang with the CSA suggested there should be a single body or leader of the supervision, to avoid problems of coordination among several different departments.