Thursday, March 31, 2011

Justice: An Interaction with Isaac Iwuagwu

On February 14, 2011, I sold five mini DV data cartridges to someone who listed himself as Dr. Isaac Iwuagwu of Hamden, CT.  This transaction was arranged through  The tapes were in new condition, still in the original plastic wrapping.
I listed those tapes on Amazon by finding the item that I had purchased and then indicating that I had one of that item to sell.  The item in question, by Amazon's listing, was a set of 10 mini DV data cartridges.  In my comments, I stated, "Five tapes, not ten."  That is, I had bought a set of 10, I had used five, and I was reselling the remaining five.  I adjusted the selling price accordingly.

I did not realize, at the time, that Amazon would consider this an inappropriate or incorrect listing.  Their rationale was that I was not selling *exactly* the item they had listed.  They were the same tapes, but in their view the difference in quantity was crucial.  To my surprise, Amazon disregarded their own "Comments" space in reaching that decision.  In other words, they allowed sellers to add further information about the item being sold -- which would be unnecessary if it was in any sense different from the description already provided on their webpage.

But whatever.  That was Amazon's rule.  I just didn't realize it.  I sold the tapes to Dr. Iwuagwu, he paid me, and I shipped them to him.  When he received them, he emailed me:

Item was advertized as a pack of 10. Why did I get only 5?  Please I need the remaining 5.
I replied:
This information was included in the description of the item's advertisement.  The item you purchased was significantly reduced in price as a result.
He responded:
On what web page is this your "description of the item's advertisement"? Go back to product advertisement and picture. May be will settle for us. Visit this page:
It seemed, from this response, that he was already familiar with Amazon's approach to cases like this.

We were communicating through Amazon's website.  I wrote back as follows:
Dr. Iwagwu, the description was right there on the page where you bought it.  I am attaching a PDF of the page, though I am not sure Amazon will allow attachments.  It said, very plainly, "Five tapes, not ten." 
He replied:
When people buy from they don't go about searching individual seller's customized pages. The highest level (central) page provided by provides buyers info about a product. The page you sent is a kind of "after the effect". That is your customized page that shows up only after an order has already been placed. And if you stick to that as a proof, then the whole thing is a mere deception. After placing an order, somewhere during chechout the item description gets subtly altered in a comment. That's not being transparent. The item description [e-mail address removed] level is my compass when I buy an item on
He seemed to be claiming that he would not see the comment before making the purchase.  I have sold hundreds of items online.  I have an excellent rating on both Amazon and eBay.  In those many transactions, not one buyer has made this claim.  I responded:
Maybe we are misunderstanding each other.  The PDF I sent you was for my records, but the seller's additional comment does appear plainly on the list of products and sellers.  I buy on Amazon too.  I see those comments.  It was not concealed or only visible afterwards.  If you take a look at Amazon, you will see what I mean.

Let me put it this way.  I advertised a set of five tapes, not ten, at a reduced price.  I thought this might be useful for someone who did not need a full set of ten tapes.  I am a good seller.  I have been selling online for years, and I make a point of being honest with people about what they are getting.  I was honest in this case.  I'm sorry if you didn't notice the description, but that is unusual.  It is right there.  People ordinarily see it. 
Dr. Iwuagwu did not reply to that message.  Our next communication was the following message from me, a week or so:
I see that Amazon has credited the purchase price plus shipping back to you.  Did you intend to return the item to me, then?
He did not reply.  Nor did he offer to pay for the tapes.  In short, I lost the $8.95 sale price that I probably could have gotten on eBay, plus the cost of shipping, and he got five tapes for free.

This interaction did not leave me with a positive sense of Dr. Iwuagwu.  To my knowledge, Amazon did not offer a way to notify other sellers of this experience.  The texts shown above were evidently not going to be available, or consulted, if other sellers had experiences suggesting that Dr. Iwuagwu might be in the habit of exploiting opportunities to obtain free merchandise.

It was also possible that Dr. Iwuagwu was, for instance, a complete newcomer to America, had no idea what was going on, and sincerely believed he was being hoodwinked.  I had a hard time seeing how he could be too terribly naive -- after all, he did seem to have learned about Amazon's policies -- but there might have been some way in which I was mistaken.

Either way, Amazon's grievance system did not allow for a genuine resolution of the dispute.  Amazon made a simplistic decision, justified not by the facts but by its rules.  And that is its prerogative.  Amazon has achieved market dominance; this has the benefit of providing an alternative to eBay, for sellers like me; in that sphere, it can dictate what it is going to do; and the questions of whether I have been cheated, or Dr. Iwuagwu has been misunderstood, are not going to be resolved.

In these regards, Amazon functioned as a microcosm of concepts of justice in the U.S.  While I do want to post a notice of concern regarding Dr. Iwuagwu, what really interests me about this transaction is what it illustrated, in a very simple exchange consisting of just a few messages.  The preceding paragraph, rewritten to replace "Amazon" with "the court," would largely apply to American litigation processes as well.  The courts have their sphere; they dictate the rules; their rules commonly ignore the realities; and the very common outcome is dissatisfaction and/or injustice, for one if not both parties.

To put it in different terms, Amazon was able to handle the case in this manner because this is what we've gotten used to.  It's what we expect.  In another kind of America, this sort of thing would not be tolerated.  Companies or courts engaging in it would be denounced.

What we would have, instead, could take a variety of forms.  For instance, there might be a strict insistence upon the facts, with disincentives for abuse or manipulation; or there might be an orientation toward equity, where I would not be sent away without at least something to show for the loss of my tapes; or there might be an expectation of consensus or reconciliation, where the arbitrator in Amazon's position would be highly communicative and concerned with mutual understanding and a return to the emotional status quo -- where, that is, resentment or other negative reactions would be taken seriously.  It is remarkable that a company, never mind a society, can be indifferent to all of these justice-related concerns and more.

The case of Dr. Iwuagwu is very simple and minor.  But it's not as though things are done better on the grand scale.  The logic actually seems to run in the other direction.  The message appears to be something like this:  "If we aren't going to do a good job of deciding very important cases in a timely and efficient manner, we sure aren't going to pay much attention to your trivial gripe."  And so people's lives are complicated and often made miserable by mishandled or ignored disputes that seem minor to others but are important to them.

"Life is unfair," we are told, with the implication that that's how it will always be.  That is the ultimate principle underlying justice-related processes in the courts and elsewhere throughout American society.  And it will remain the ultimate principle until people become sufficiently motivated to seek a change.