By Truman Lewis
September 5, 2010
Bowing to years of threats and intimidation by 17 state attorneys general, Craigslist has shuttered its Adult Services section, pilloried by the AGs for supposedly fostering prostitution and child abuse, problems which have festered for centuries.
The Craigslist home page now shows a black bar reading "censored" where the Adult Services link formerly appeared. Adult Services ads are estimated to have generated about $36 million of annual business for the nont-for-profit site, about a third of its total income.
The company made no statement about the action and it's not known if it is intended to be permanent or if Craigslist is trying to make a point. The black-out affects only the United States. Web users in Cuba, China and other countries without a tradition of free speech are still able to access the ads.
The attorneys general -- ignoring federal law which shields Web sites from liability for postings by users -- have sought to hold Craigslist responsible for ads said to include offers of prostitution and other activities that are illegal in some jurisdictions.
Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act shields Internet forums from liability for the content of postings by users. Individuals making the postings, however, retain responsibility for their statements.
Oddly, newspapers, professional journalism organizations and civil liberties groups have been relatively silent on the AGs' persecution of Craigslist, although some commentators were quick to note that it's unlikely the persecution of Craigslist will put an end to online advertising of a sexual nature.
"If the "Adult Services" section is gone for good, it's a safe bet those type of listings may soon flood other categories on the site," said PC World's Paul Suarez.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) did not respond to ConsumerAffairs.com's request for comment Sunday.
However, the EFF came to Craigslist's defense last week in an unrelated case involving a lawsuit filed against the site by an individual who sued Craigslist for allegedly posting ads written by an impersonator.
In that case, an individual referred to as Scott P. complained to Craigslist that a series of ads had been written by impersonators. Craigslist responded by saying it would take care of the matter and removed the ads. When the ads were re-posted, Scott P. sued, saying Craigslist had agreed to solve the problem.
EFF said such suits could discourage Craigslist and other Web publishers from trying to help solve their readers' problems.
"Section 230 was a deliberate effort by Congress to encourage service providers to find innovative ways to self-regulate," said EFF Senior Staff Attorney Kurt Opsahl. "Yet Craigslist is facing the prospect of extended litigation because it tried to do just that. Allowing this litigation to continue could result in websites being less helpful to users with complaints."
Additionally troublesome is the specter of further lawsuits, which could convince other Internet innovators not to host user content at all, EFF said.
"Congress created Section 230 to allow for online interactivity without a flood of lawsuits. But this case could undermine the immunity that the law created," said Opsahl. "If litigation can survive merely because a plaintiff asserts that the site made a vague promise, sites may decide that allowing comments or user generated content is not worth the legal exposure. Then we'll lose the vibrant online environment that Section 230 helped create in the first place."
Joining EFF in the letter to court were the Center for Democracy and Technology, the Citizen Media Law Project, and law professors Eric Goldman, David S. Levine, David G. Post, and Jason Schultz. Separately, a group of Internet companies, including Yahoo!, Amazon, Facebook, Twitter, Google and Linkedin filed another amicus brief in support of Craiglist.
In their latest attack, the 17 states wrote to Craiglist CEO Jim Buckmaster and founder Craig Newmark, contending that since Craiglist was not screening ads to the politicians' satisfaction, it should stop accepting them altogether and shut down the Adult Services section.
The increasingly sharp public criticism of Craiglists Adult Services section reflects a growing recognition that ads for prostitution -- including ads trafficking children -- are rampant on it, Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood said. In our view, the company should take immediate action to end these ads."
In a blog posting, Craiglist CEO Jim Buckmaster said the company began manually screeening Adult Services ads in May 2009 and, since then, has intensified its efforts to keep objectionable material from being posted on its site.
"Before being posted each individual ad is reviewed by an attorney licensed to practice law in the US, trained to enforce Craiglists posting guidelines, which are stricter than those typically used by yellow pages, newspapers, or any other company that we are aware of," Buckmaster said. "More than 700,000 ads were rejected by those attorneys in the year following implementation of manual screening, for falling short of our guidelines."
Our uniquely intensive manual screening process has resulted in a mass exodus of those unwilling to abide by Craiglists standards, manually enforced on an ad-by-ad basis.
But in their statement, the attorneys general discounted Craiglist's efforts.
Your much-touted 'manual review' of Adult Services ads has failed to yield any discernible reduction in obvious solicitations, the letter says. We recognize that Craiglist may lose the considerable revenue generated by the Adult Services ads, the attorneys general said. No amount of money can justify the scourge of illegal prostitution, and the suffering of the woman and children who will continue to be victimized, in the market and trafficking provided by Craiglist.
The AGs said that even following its 2008 public pledge to attorneys general and the public that it would better police its own site, Craiglist remains a hot spot for blatant prostitution ads.
In July 2010, two girls who said that they were trafficked for sex through Craiglist wrote an open letter to Craiglist officials, pleading for the elimination of the Adult Services section. The girls told of brutalization and assault suffered not just by them, but also by untold numbers of other children, the attorneys general said.
The attorneys general call recent blog posts and public statements from Buckmaster and Newmark, including a CNN interview, deeply troubling because they seem to imply that victims, law enforcement officials and childrens advocates are at least partially to blame for these incidents due to their failure to provide Craiglist with police reports, ad copy or links documenting the crimes.
The attorneys general said this position fails to acknowledge that Craiglist is the only party positioned to stop these ads before they are published. While the perpetrators may eventually be apprehended and brought to justice, the victims -- assuming they survive -- will carry the scars for life, the attorneys general said.
But in his blog, Buckmaster suggested that Craiglist is being unfairly singled out for criticism while other companies -- including eBay -- continue to profit from pornography and prostitution.
Buckmaster said that eBay's LOQUO.com site offers "tens of thousands of exceptionally hardcore pornographic ads explicity offering sex for sale." He said eBay has blocked access to the site from U.S. addresses but continues to make the site available internationally.
Buckmaster scoffed at eBay's promise to take down the spicy ads.
Ill make a friendly wager that rather than taking down such listings, which eBay has aggressively marketed over the years to a very high level of profitability, upselling their users to higher and higher fees, eBay will instead soon sell their non family friendly sites such as this one to the highest bidder.
States participating in the campaign to censor Craigslist postings are:
Arkansas, Connecticut, Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Maryland, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, New Hampshire, Ohio, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia.
Craigslist Bows to Censorship, Closes Adult Services Section...