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Craigslist to state AGs: Censor this, assholes

craigs-list-hookers-300x285 (1) Probably the last thing Craig Newmark ever imagined is that the little email list he started back in 1995 would one day be at the center of a controversy over prostitution, the First Amendment, and the future of the InterWebs. But now, 15 years later, Craigslist is in the thick of of a dispute over whether its ad service is aiding and abetting prostitution or an exercise in unbridled free speech.

The battle with Craigslist over its ads has been brewing for some time, thanks in part to highly publicized stories like the "Craigslist Killer" Philip Markoff, who killed one women and robbed two others who advertised massage services on the online classifieds site. (Though one has to wonder if Markoff had found identical ads in a newspaper whether anyone would have thought to call him, say, the Boston Globe Killer.)

But it really kicked into gear last year, when South Carolina state attorney general Henry McMaster made a stink, demanding Craigslist shut down its adult ads in his state. That resulting in an even stinkier response from Craigslist CEO Jim Buckmaster, which included a temporary restraining order against AG McMaster. They then proceeded to Indian leg wrestle over who owned the rights to the suffix "Master."

In May 2009, Craigslist compromised by kicking its Erotic Services category to the curb and creating a cleaner, more wholesome "Adult Services" category in its place. Craigslist also promised to monitor the ads more closely and to charge $10 per ad to keep out the riff raff and the spammers.

Fast forward to August 2010, when 17 state attorneys general collaborate on an open letter to Craiglist [PDF], asking it to drop its adult ads. The letter is a bit scant on proof of actual wrongdoing but makes up for it with extra helpings of dramatic rhetoric:  

We sincerely hope craigslist will finally hear the voices of the victims, women and children, who plead with you to make this important change. We, too, call on craigslist to listen and respond now by shutting down the Adult Services section of its website. Such action is the right thing to do to protect innocent woman and children.

Craigslist decision to slap a big black "censored" label over its adult services ad section last weekend could have been an attempt to comply with the AG’s demands, but more likely it was Craiglists’ way of saying "You want us to censor adult ads? Fine. Let’s just see what happens, shall we?"

There’s no question Craigslist’s promise to screen adult ads is essentially a joke, or putting that "censored" lavel over the Adult section has done nothing to remove these kinds of ads from the service. A simple search on the terms "escort," "exotic" or "adult" will prove both of those things (though you’ll have to wade through a fair number of ads for Ford Escorts, exotic animals, and adult swim lessons).

If you don’t let these people advertise in Adult, they’ll advertise the same services elsewhere — whether it’s personals, small business, or "skilled trade services." And, as Buckmaster has pointed out in numerous blog posts, they can certainly advertise just as easily outside of Craigslist — like in the local papers of those jurisdictions in the AG’s respective backyards, or on eBay’s classifieds. You don’t hear a lot about state AGs going after them.

There’s also no question that going after Craigslist in an election year is cheap political theater. It’s a heckovalot easier to write a strongly worded letter to Craigslist (followed by a press release) to grab headlines for being tough on prostitution without having to getting your hands dirty (by, say, actually being tough on prostitution).

Craigslist appears to be protected by the safe harbor provisions of the Communications Decency Act, which keeps Web sites free from being legally liable for the material other people post there. Yet state AG’s like Connecticutt’s Richard Blumenthal are calling for Congress to rewrite the CDA to their liking. Per The Hartford Courant:

Blumenthal criticized [the Communications Decency Act], saying it "dates from the earliest days of the Internet," and is now "completely outdated."

"I believe that the very broad immunity claimed by craigslist and other websites should be substantially reduced," Blumenthal said in an interview. "Congress should certainly modify or clarify the standard to cut back on the immunity that they claim is virtually absolute."

Blumenthal said websites such as craigslist should have the same legal status as newspapers that abet criminal activity — not blanket protection.

Imagine an Internet where every site was liable for every comment left by some halfwit. Imagine the damage you could do to a site you didn’t care for, or what could happen to political sites like Daily Kos or RedState. Most sites these days have their hands full just trying to fight comment spam, let alone trying to police content that might "abet criminal activity." If the safe harbor provisions of the CDA came down, they’d likely take vast numbers of Web sites with them.

If the states really were listening to "the voices of the victims, women and children" and wanted to crack down on prostitution, all they’d to do is have the cops call up a few advertisers on Craigslist and make appointments. After the advertisers solicited money for sex, arrest them. Once word got out that the police was cracking down on Craigslist advertisers, they’d stop advertising there. They’d move on to some other venue.

Because that’s all banning adult ads from Craigslist would do. It won’t solve the problem. It will just move it down the road a few blocks. Possibly long enough for the next round of elections to come and go. Otherwise, it changes nothing.

Should Craigslist ban adult ads, or should the state AGs focus on other things, like fighting actual crimes? Post your thoughts below or email me:

This originally appeared in a slightly different form on InfoWorld.

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