In Defense of Craigslist

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>Last Friday, Craigslist’s classic white and blue design was rudely interrupted by a black box reading—somewhat defiantly—“CENSORED”: the site had shut down its classified sex ads in response to a campaign by 17 state attorneys general.

In their crusade, the attorneys general had emphasized the significant profits that Craigslist’s ads, which enable illegal prostitution and child trafficking, have generated. But the truth is that Craigslist wouldn’t be making all that money from such transactions if not for earlier interference by this same group of crusading moralists. Shutting the site down won’t end these crimes; it will simply make it harder for law enforcement to investigate them.

 The assault on Craigslist is being spearheaded by the Torquemada of Tech, Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, who has made a specialty of investigating internet crimes. In the last year, while running for Senate, he has opened investigations involving Apple, Amazon and Google. And in recent months he’s drummed up public outrage by pointing to the $44 million dollars in revenue that Craigslist is estimated to be earning from sex ads this year. “We understand that prostitution is profitable,” he wrote in an August, 2010 letter to Craigslist’s CEO and founder, “but its human toll is intolerable, and Craigslist should cease being an enabler.” 

The irony is that Craigslist only began charging for sex ads back in November of 2008 in response to pressure from Blumenthal and an earlier coalition of AGs. Prior to that, there had been no fee for posting in what was known as the “erotic services” category. The idea was that a fee would entail a credit card, leaving a financial trail for law enforcement to follow in pursuing suspicious postings. Back in November of 2008, Blumenthal pointed out that, “requiring phone numbers, credit cards and identifying details will provide a roadmap to prostitutes and sex traffickers—so we can track them down and lock them up. Information is a powerful disincentive and disinfectant to purveyors of illegal sex.”

But now those same fees are being used to demonize Craigslist. In August 2010, Blumenthal wrote, “We recognize that Craigslist may lose the considerable revenue generated by the Adult Services ads. No amount of money can justify the scourge of illegal prostitution, and the suffering of women and children who will continue to be victimized, in the market and trafficking provided by Craigslist.”

Many of the activities conducted on Craigslist do indeed constitute horrific crimes. But shutting down a part of the site won’t help to end these problems. While the attorneys general have singled out Craigslist as a villain, the exact same type of advertising runs in nearly equal volume on sites like Ebay’s backpages.com and in alternative newspapers in cities around the country. Hundreds of smaller classified sites also exist, some based outside the United States.

Many of those classified sites don’t require the same amount of detail from posters that Craigslist does, nor do they engage in the same amount of human screening on ads, or implement software to streamline the work of law enforcement, as Craigslist does.  “The people who are attacking Craigslist are passionate about an important cause, but they are clearly misinformed,” notes Perry Aftab, director of Wiredsaftey.org and an expert in child safety online. “Over the last two years Craigslist has implemented a lot of new safety features and is extremely responsive to law enforcement.”

A powerful lesson in internet policing can be gleaned from the death of the file sharing service Napster. Rather than working with the site to crack down on illegal file sharing, the major record labels sued it out of existence. But Napster’s demise didn’t slow the growth of online piracy. Instead, file sharing simply moved to a decentralized network of less visible sites.

Danah Boyd, a senior researcher at Microsoft and herself a victim of violence, recently wrote on her blog that Craigslist, with its national scale and ample resources, is the best possible partner for law enforcement. “Craigslist is not a pimp, but a public perch from which law enforcement can watch without being seen.”

The emergence of online classifieds has created a new platform for the illegal sex trade and enabled those criminals to be more mobile in their business. But short of shutting off the entire web, it’s impossible to prevent this sort of thing altogether. Craigslist, with its large collection of credit card data and telephone numbers, could at least help federal law enforcement to connect the dots across state lines. “It makes me scream when I think of how many resources have been used attempting to censor Craigslist,” writes Boyd, “instead of leveraging it as a space for effective law enforcement.”

To address critics’ concerns, Craigslist needs to devote a substantial amount of its adult services revenue to combating the illegal sex trade on its site. In doing so, it must be transparent about how it’s spending the money and should find a partner in law enforcement who can put a public face on their activity. The site could become a model for this kind of cooperation.

The alternative? Craigslist could bow to the pressure and shutter it adult services section. But if that happens, these crimes will simply move into the shadows—their scope and severity undiminished.

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Benjamin Popper is a reporter based in Brooklyn.

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