With Craigslist’s decision to replace its “adult services” section of its “Services” classifieds with a “Censored” bar that blocks that content, the online powerhouse has once again become a magnet for controversy among those who view the move as a cave-in to limit free speech and to those who accuse the site of facilitating prostitution and possibly a now-dead serial killer’s agenda.
n a poll Mashable is conducting about the change, the website asked readers if Craigslist’s “adult services” should be censored. So far, 71 percent of more than 1,800 who have responded said no, it shouldn’t be censored (although the caveat to that “no” is “because prostitution shouldn’t be illegal anyway.”)
In its coverage of the possible free-speech ramifications of the decision, the New York Times boiled down the issue: “Just how much responsibility does a Web site have for what is posted by its users, or for potential criminal activity that results from the posts?”
The liability issue has stirred up lots of debate.
“If you impose liability on Craigslist, YouTube and Facebook for anything their users do, then they’re not going to take chances,” Brian Carver, an attorney and assistant professor at the UC Berkeley school of information, told The San Francisco Chronicle last week in a story about the Aug. 24 demand from attorneys general to Craigslist to shut down the “Adult Services” section. “It would likely result in the takedown of what might otherwise be perfectly legitimate free expression.”
Technology Liberation Front blogger Ryan Radia wrote: “While the state attorneys general are likely celebrating victory this holiday weekend, all they’ve really done is to stifle free speech online and complicate efforts by law enforcement authorities to go after the real bad guys — you know, the ones who are forcing kids into sex slavery.”
He added: “Law enforcement officials should investigate sex crimes against children committed using the Internet and aggressively prosecute suspected child sex traffickers. Trying to intimidate interactive websites like Craigslist, however, is the wrong approach.”
That’s not to say Craigslist hasn’t been responsive to the pressure imposed by law enforcement and legislators, especially in light of the highly publicized Philip Markoff case. Markoff, who recently committed suicide, was facing a murder charge of a woman he purportedly found via Craigslist’s “erotic services.” He was suspected of attacking other women he met via the site’s classified ads.
In a Aug.18 post to the Craigslist blog, CEO Jim Buckmaster wrote that Craigslist “is committed to being socially responsible, and when it comes to adult services ads, that includes aggressively combating violent crime and human rights violations, including human trafficking and the exploitation of minors. We are working intensively as I write this with experts and thought leaders at leading non-profits and among law enforcement on further substantive measures we can take.”
Buckmaster wrote that in May 2009, Craigslist “implemented manual screening of adult services ads … Since that time, before being posted each individual ad is reviewed by an attorney licensed to practice law in the US, trained to enforce craigslist’s posting guidelines, which are stricter than those typically used by (The Yellow Pages), newspapers, or any other company that we are aware of.”
He said that more than 700,000 ads were rejected by attorneys in that first year 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 craigslist’s standards, manually enforced on an ad-by-ad basis.”
In the past, Craigslist has relied on the Communications Decency Act to give it the legal weight of immunity and in 2009 filed a civil rights suit against South Carolina Attorney General Henry McMaster, who threatened to prosecute Craigslist for criminal liability in allowing prostitution ads to appear on its site. South Carolina is one of the 18 states that sent the Aug. 24 demand.
“There are multiple ways in which to censor speech — one is directly through the courts, and the other is through a form of protest that says, even if you can do this, stop doing it,” Thomas R. Burke, a lawyer at Davis Wright Tremaine who specializes in Internet law, told The New York Times. “Maybe their point in saying they were censored is that people need to understand the law better.”
Furthering fueling the issue is the amount of revenue generated by that section of Craigslist. While Craigslist is mostly free, it does charge $10 to post an “adult services” ad. According to the Advanced Interactive Media Group, Craigslist’s “adult services” section accounts for 30 percent of the site’s estimated $122 million 2010 revenue. More than half the company’s revenue comes from recruitment advertising, while another 17 percent comes from New York city apartment ads.
While lawmakers and law enforcement may be touting the removal of “adult services” from Craigslist, is it an empty victory? Can the world’s oldest profession — and its off-shoots — be stopped by this or will it merely morph into more savvy language into the personals section?
Certainly, the demand remains strong. “For 2010, its ‘adult services’ revenue will be three times the revenue it generated in that category in 2009,” said Jim Townsend, editorial director of Classified Intelligence Report and the AIM Group.