Craigslist Cleans House, Trash Moves Elsewhere

After resisting pressure from advocacy groups and attorneysgeneral 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.

The site closed the section at the beginning of the month, but it wasunclear 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 hasdismayed free speech advocates, including the Electronic FrontierFoundation.

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 withone attorney general or another over the section. Critics claimed itpromoted both adult and child prostitution. Craigslist tried to adopta conciliatory stance in some of the skirmishes. For instance, at onepoint 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 FirstAmendment protection of speech, as well as the Communications DecencyAct of 1996, which gives interactive computer service providers immunityagainst liability that might result from material posted by thirdparties.

Turning on the Heat

The attorneys general and child protection advocates continued to step up the pressure, however. Last month, 17 AGs requested in anopen 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 sexthrough craigslist wrote an ‘open letter’ to your company in which they pleaded with you to eliminate the Adult Servicessection,” the letter read. “Their poignant account told a horrificstory of brutalization and assault suffered not just by them, but alsoby untold numbers of other children.”

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

It is unclear what prompted Craigslist to finally wave the white flagon this issue. In testimony to a House Judiciary subcommittee, WilliamClinton Powell, the director of customer service and law enforcementrelations for Craigslist, said money was not an issue.

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

PR Battle

Essentially, Craigslist decided it was losing the PR battle, which wasmore important than its legal rights or whatever revenue it collectsfrom adult services, said James Cohen, a professor atFordham Law.

“Legally, they were on solid ground,” he told the E-Commerce Times. “Almost certainly, people at Craigslist urged the decision makers toshut it down for business reasons — it was giving Craigslist a badname.”

Ultimately, this story comes down to a company that waspressured 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 challengeit, 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 thismove, 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 ahuge publisher. Not having that information on the site will make itjust a little bit harder to find. It will also make it less likelythat another publisher will place such ads, given Craigslist’sexperience.”

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 casea crime was committed,” he told the E-Commerce Times.

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