History & Description of the Service
In 2000, Square Trade launched a cutting edge service to help ebay buyers and sellers resolve disputes on the internet. With the growth of internet commerce, it had become widely recognized that buyers and sellers had no meaningful recourse for resolving disputes that arose from online transactions. Consumer advocacy groups decried the need to protect buyers from online fraud, and sellers on eBay begged from some mechanism to protect their online reputations, such as the feedback system at eBay, from being unfairly discredited. Square Trade launched its dispute resolution service in 2000, receiving its first dispute within 15 minutes of creating an active link from eBay. The mediation service quickly become the largest utilized dispute resolution worldwide, either offline or online.
Square Trade chose to provide mediation, which is a service that assists parties in reaching a negotiated settlement agreement. Mediation is completely voluntary; nobody is forced to participate. Mediation keeps the control with the parties, unlike other models of dispute resolution such as arbitration or a judge & jury. This type of resolution service works effectively because it keeps the parties in complete control of the process and avoids all of the legal jurisdictional quandaries with which the internet challenges legal scholars. Consumer groups were satisfied that buyers would maintain their rights and business advocates were pleased that sellers could be given a mechanism for protecting their reputations.
During Square Trade's history its online dispute resolution service has been expanded to resolve a wide range of disputes beyond the world of ecommerce and eBay. For example, in significant numbers it handled service disputes for eLance, an online services marketplace, and offline real estate conflicts between buyers and sellers for the California Association of Realtors.
Square Trade's network of online mediators draws from an international group of trained and highly experienced online mediators. To join Square Trade's service, mediators are required to have had extensive offline mediation experience and to successfully complete Square Trade's rigorous online training program. The flexibility and cutting edge nature of the work has encouraged most Square Trade mediators to remain committed to the work. All of the current network of Square Trade mediators have been working for Square Trade and handling eBay disputes for well over four years. This group brings sophisticated experience to both their mediation practice as well as understanding the nuances and complications of online mediation.
Does it Work?
Online dispute resolution has been shown to efficaciously resolve problems. Square Trade's experience has shown that several factors enhance the likelihood that an online system will lead to successful resolution of the dispute.
First, parties will be much more likely to settle if they have enhanced reasons to participate, such as geographical distance rendering in person meetings costly or difficult, jurisdictional boundaries making legal systems more challenging to navigate, or structural incentives to participate such as consequences for failing to participate such as a contractual mediation clause or eBay's feedback system.
Second, complex or emotionally charged situations will be more effectively resolved with the assistance of a skilled mediator who knows how to handle emotions in written communications, is aware of distinct cultural norms, and can leverage the mediation process and online technology to create meaningful opportunities for parties to express themselves and transition to resolution.
Third, a tailored online technology such as Square Trade's can facilitate resolution. A clear and well designed intake form enables the parties to appropriately express themselves entering the mediation. A secure arena for participation also fosters crucial trust in the process and system.
Fourth, the disposition of the parties is crucial to a speedy resolution. Researchers from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University published a study of Square Trade's dispute resolution service in the Academy of Management Journal that showed that parties were more likely to resolve a case when they focus on resolution and avoid expressions of anger. See Emotions and Rationality in Mediation: Evidence from Electronically-Mediated Disputes, Friedman, et. al. Jan. 2003, referenced here.
Square Trade's ODR Service Today
Now in its eighth year of service, Square Trade has refined its mediation services to best meet the needs of eBay buyers and sellers. eBay users who have a dispute that includes a feedback issue may, for a small fee, file a case with Square Trade. The filer enters the relevant eBay item number and a brief description of the problem. Thereafter Square Trade's system will obtain relevant details from eBay directly, and contact the other party to notify them of the dispute. Square Trade's system and mediators handle the case according to rules and guidelines established by eBay for reviewing feedback disputes. Most cases are resolved within two weeks.