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Craigslist Cleans House, Trash Moves Elsewhere

By Erika Morphy
Sep 16, 2010 12:53 PM PT

After resisting pressure from advocacy groups and attorneys general for more than a year, Craigslist has decided to permanently remove its adult services section from its online classified ads in the United States. Elsewhere around the world, the section will remain live.

Craigslist Cleans House, Trash Moves Elsewhere

The site closed the section at the beginning of the month, but it was unclear about its ultimate fate. Craigslist had plastered a "censored" logo over the section's inactive link, leaving little doubt about its attitude toward the pressure being applied.

The decision to permanently close the adult services section has dismayed free speech advocates, including the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Its stance is that Craigslist was on solid legal ground, and the pressure it was facing from attorneys general was an attempt to strongarm the company.

For more than a year, Craigslist has been tangling with one attorney general or another over the section. Critics claimed it promoted both adult and child prostitution. Craigslist tried to adopt a conciliatory stance in some of the skirmishes. For instance, at one point Craigslist replaced its "erotic services" category with an "adult services section," which it promised to screen.

At the same time, it stuck to its legal guns, pointing to First Amendment protection of speech, as well as the Communications Decency Act of 1996, which gives interactive computer service providers immunity against liability that might result from material posted by third parties.

Turning on the Heat

The attorneys general and child protection advocates continued to step up the pressure, however. Last month, 17 AGs requested in an open letter that Craigslist shut down that portion of the site, emphasizing that it was used for child sex trafficking. It also referenced the connections of some ads with sex crimes.

"In July 2010, two girls who said that they were trafficked for sex through craigslist wrote an 'open letter' to your company in which they pleaded with you to eliminate the Adult Services section," the letter read. "Their poignant account told a horrific story of brutalization and assault suffered not just by them, but also by untold numbers of other children."

Craigslist responded in a blog post, asking for more details, such as the police reports filed on the crimes.

It is unclear what prompted Craigslist to finally wave the white flag on this issue. In testimony to a House Judiciary subcommittee, William Clinton Powell, the director of customer service and law enforcement relations for Craigslist, said money was not an issue.

Craigslist reportedly made US$30 million from adult listings year to date in 2010, according to the Advanced Interactive Media Group.

PR Battle

Essentially, Craigslist decided it was losing the PR battle, which was more important than its legal rights or whatever revenue it collects from adult services, said James Cohen, a professor at Fordham Law.

"Legally, they were on solid ground," he told the E-Commerce Times. "Almost certainly, people at Craigslist urged the decision makers to shut it down for business reasons -- it was giving Craigslist a bad name."

Ultimately, this story comes down to a company that was pressured by its customers to take a certain action -- and it caved, he said. That sort of thing happens every day in the business world.

"Craigslist was picking its battle," Peter Vogel of Gardere Wynne Sewell told the E-Commerce Times. "If they had continued to challenge it, they probably would have won in court --but lost with the public."

Now, Craigslist gets to portray itself as a white knight for children's causes, he said.

Practical Value

While this is clearly a symbolic victory for those pushing for this move, it is unclear how much of a practical effect it will have on the problem that concerns them. Perpetrators of prostitution and child sex trafficking are unlikely to be deterred, considering the profits at stake, by the shutdown of one online channel.

It will make a difference at the margins, said Cohen. "Craigslist is a huge publisher. Not having that information on the site will make it just a little bit harder to find. It will also make it less likely that another publisher will place such ads, given Craigslist's experience."

Another possible negative consequence is that the sites this activity could shift to might not cooperate with law enforcers, unlike Craigslist, which accommodated police requests in connection with criminal investigations related to its site, noted Ryan McCormick, media relations specialist with Goldman & McCormick Public Relations.

"Users had to verify each adult ad with a credit card and other means, and Craigslist also gave the police full access to their site in case a crime was committed," he told the E-Commerce Times.

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