Craigslist to state attorneys: Censor this

Craigslist's decision to censor its adult ads throws gasoline on the flames. But is this fire necessary or a publicity stunt?

Probably the last thing Craig Newmark ever imagined was that the little email list he started back in 1995 would one day be at the center of a controversy over prostitution, the First Amendment, and the future of the InterWebs. But 15 years later, Craigslist is in the thick of a dispute over whether its ad service is aiding and abetting prostitution, or merely an exercise in free speech.

The battle with Craigslist over its ads has been brewing for some time, thanks in part to highly publicised stories about the "Craigslist killer," Philip Markoff, who murdered three women advertising massage services on the online classifieds site. (Though one has to wonder, if Markoff had found identical ads in a newspaper would anyone have thought to call him, say, the "Boston Globe Killer"?)

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Things really kicked into gear last year, when South Carolina state attorney general Henry McMaster made a stink, demanding Craigslist shut down its adult ads in his state. That resulted in an even stinkier response from Craigslist CEO Jim Buckmaster, which included a temporary restraining order against AG McMaster. They then proceeded to Indian leg wrestle over who owned the rights to the suffix "Master."

In May 2009, Craigslist compromised by kicking its Erotic Services category to the curb and creating a cleaner, more wholesome Adult Services category in its place. Craigslist also promised to monitor the ads more closely and to charge $US10 per ad to keep out the riff raff and spammers.

Fast-forward to August 2010, when 17 state attorneys general collaborated on an open letter to Craiglist PDF, asking it to drop its adult ads. The letter is a bit scant on proof of actual wrongdoing but makes up for it with extra helpings of dramatic rhetoric:

We sincerely hope craigslist will finally hear the voices of the victims, women and children, who plead with you to make this important change. We, too, call on craigslist to listen and respond now by shutting down the Adult Services section of its website. Such action is the right thing to do to protect innocent woman and children.

Craigslist's decision to slap a big black "censored" label over its Adult Services section last weekend could have been an attempt to comply with the AGs' demands, but more likely it was Craiglist's way of saying "You want us to censor adult ads? Fine. Let's just see what happens, shall we?"

There's no question Craigslist's promise to screen adult ads is essentially a joke or that putting a "censored" label over the Adult Services section has done nothing to remove these kinds of ads -- try a simple search on the terms "escort," "exotic," or "adult" if you're not convinced (though you'll have to wade through a fair number of ads for Ford Escorts, exotic animals, and adult swim lessons).

If you don't let these people advertise under "Adult Services," they'll advertise the same services elsewhere -- whether it's in Personals, Small Business, or the Skilled Trade Services section. And as Buckmaster has pointed out in numerous blog posts, they can certainly advertise just as easily outside of Craigslist -- like in the local papers of those jurisdictions in the AGs' respective backyards or on eBay's classifieds. So far, we haven't heard much about state AGs going after those guys.

There's also no question that going after Craigslist in an election year is cheap political theater. It's a heckuvalot easier to write a strongly worded letter (followed by a press release) to grab headlines for being tough on prostitution without having to getting your hands dirty by, say, actually being tough on prostitution.

Craigslist appears to be protected by the safe harbor provisions of the Communications Decency Act, which keeps websites free from legal liability for the material other people post there. Yet state AGs like Connecticut's Richard Blumenthal are calling for Congress to rewrite the CDA to their liking. Per The Hartford Courant:

Blumenthal criticized [the Communications Decency Act], saying it "dates from the earliest days of the Internet," and is now "completely outdated."

"I believe that the very broad immunity claimed by craigslist and other websites should be substantially reduced," Blumenthal said in an interview. "Congress should certainly modify or clarify the standard to cut back on the immunity that they claim is virtually absolute."

Blumenthal said websites such as craigslist should have the same legal status as newspapers that abet criminal activity -- not blanket protection.

Imagine an Internet where every site was liable for every comment left by some halfwit. Imagine the damage you could do to a site you didn't care for just by sprinkling a few scurrilous comments or what could happen to political sites like Daily Kos or RedState, where that kind of commenting is standard fare. Most sites these days have their hands full just trying to fight comment spam, let alone trying to police content that might "abet criminal activity." If the safe harbor provisions of the CDA came down, they'd likely take vast numbers of websites with them.

If the states really were listening to "the voices of the victims, women and children" and wanted to crack down on prostitution, they could simply order the cops to contact a few advertisers on Craigslist and arrest them for soliciting. Once word got out the police were cracking down on Craigslist ads, those ads would dry up. The hookers would move on to another venue.

Because that's all banning adult ads from Craigslist would do. It won't solve the problem. It will just move it down the road a few blocks, possibly long enough for the next round of elections to come and go. Otherwise, the AGs' "crackdown" on Craigslist is little more than a cheap publicity stunt.

Should Craigslist ban adult ads, or should the state AGs focus on other things like fighting actual crimes? E-mail me:

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Robert X. Cringely

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