I haven’t had an unethical website to feature for a while, once I decided that sites like the New York Times, Washington Post and CNN shouldn’t be considered. Today’s choice, however, really deserves the honor, because this is really, really stupid.
Etsy is a website that sells products from other producers, often small, home-based operations. During the Wuhan virus outbreak, Etsy merchants have been doing a booming business marketing masks made out of mesh, lace, and other materials that have visible holes in them. These masks are advertised as fashionable, comfy, and “breathable,” none of which are features related to the purpose masks are supposed to serve.
Amy Price, a senior research scientist at Stanford’s Anesthesia Informatics and Media Lab, told The Verge what it should have not have required an expert to figure out: If a fabric has holes large enough to see, it provides little or no protection. Virus particles can get through them via coughs or speaking to infect others, and the virus spray from others can get through to infect the mask wearer….even though the mask may look smashing.
Etsy has lots of listings for “mesh masks,” but a mask made from mesh isn’t a mask at all. It’s a fake mask, a pretend mask, fraudulently communicating that the wearer is being a good citizen. Etsy’s lawyers assert that its client is “not responsible” for determining the efficacy of masks listed on its platform, and that sellers are not allowed to make medical or health claims . Still, the implicit representation that a mask is the kind of mask health officials say should be worn when it is not is de facto false advertising, if not illegal.
“We are committed to keeping our community safe and work to actively review and remove items that violate our policies,” an Etsy spokesperson says. Deceit and doubletalk. If Etsy was really committed to keeping the community safe, then it would commit not to sell masks that are supposed to protect against the Wuhan virus yet obviously won’t and can’t do that because they are full of holes.
And no, this is not a case of “let the buyer beware.” Health experts agree that the primary beneficiaries of masks are not the mask-wearers but those around them. Thus Etsy’s venal choice to share masks that don’t work just enables jerks like this guy, who wrote a review on the site saying his new mesh mask was “perfect” for someone who hates wearing a mask. “I love it because no one can say SH%T to me now, for I have my mask on. LOL.” A similar creep wrote, “Absolutely love this mask I wear it where there’s mask mandates and am totally able to breathe and haven’t been stopped or questioned!”
Etsy does display a warning on search results and product pages for face masks reading, “Items sold on Etsy, such as masks and hand sanitizers, aren’t medical-grade. Etsy sellers cannot make medical or health claims.” Some sellers avoid this warning by labeling their product a “face cover,” rather than a “face mask.”
This isn’t hard. Nobody should be selling masks during a pandemic that can’t really do anything to stop the spread of the pandemic, and either deceive people into thinking they do, or are used by jerks like those reviewers to pretend they are being responsible when they are being the opposite. If the mask has holes in it, all the disclaimers a team of lawyers can dream up won’t change the fact that selling them is dangerous.