Toward an ethical understanding of the controversial technology of online reverse auctions

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Journal Article
Journal of Business Ethics, 2011, 98 (1), pp. 17 - 37
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B2B online reverse auctions technology (ORAs) emerged as a popular tool for large buying firms in the late 1990s. However, its growing use has been accompanied by a corresponding increase in unethical behaviors to a point that it has been described as the technology that has triggered more ethical concerns in the e-commerce arena than in any other segment of activity. Our findings first indicate that the establishment of formal ethical criteria based on the restrictive interpretation of ethics as honesty is not enough to resolve the ethical issues that surround the introduction of a technology because it ignores the ethical values shared by most actors in the sector in terms of fairness. We show the extent to which lobbying, rumor, technical problems, and public discourse can impact on the interpretations of the technology regarding ethics. Highlighting the importance of incorporating ORAs into the broader context of relationship management that integrates ethics as fairness and not only ethics as honesty serves to illustrate why the future of ORAs might not be as bright as predicted by a theoretical interpretation of the technology that is sometimes disconnected from the realities of the field.
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