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The company defends its site as an effective means of combating trafficking and child prostitution
Less than two weeks ago, Craigslist removed the adult services section of its website and slapped a big, fat, obnoxious “CENSORED” sign over it. On Wednesday, the company finally emerged from its cocoon of silence to comment on the move.
“Craigslist discontinued its adult services section on Sept. 3, 2010, and there are no plans to reinstate the category,” said William Clinton Powell, director of customer and law enforcement relations at Craigslist, at a hearing on sex trafficking and minors before the House Judiciary Committee in Washington. “Those who formerly posted adult services ads on Craigslist will now advertise at countless other venues.”
Craigslist’s removal of its adult services category earlier this month came a week after 17 U.S. state attorneys general signed a letter asking Craigslist to remove the section. The move sparked some intense debate about freedom of speech, human trafficking, and where Craigslist falls in that mix.
Several organizations had taken up their own petitions to demand the removal of the ad category before Craigslist took it down, including EndHumanTrafficking, which has said that “a search on Craigslist is one of the easiest ways to find a woman or child who is being forced into the sex industry against her will,” and called Craigslist “the richest pimp in the world.” EndHomelessness has also criticized Craigslist for offering a space for homeless children to be sexually exploited. Both websites are projects of Change.org.
Linda Smith, a former member of Congress who heads Shared Hope International, a group that rescues women and children trapped by sex traffickers, remarked: “I have not had a girl who was not marketed online and most of them were marketed on Craigslist.”
Using Craigslist to combat trafficking
But realistically speaking, is shutting down the adult ads on Craigslist going to suddenly end child prostitution? Elizabeth McDougal, a partner at Craigslist’s law firm Perkins Coie, said that those who believed that trafficking would be curtailed by shutting down the Craigslist ads were being overly idealistic.
At the hearing, Powell countered attacks on Craigslist by pointing out the benefit that such an ad service had for law enforcement. In addition to manual screening of each ad, the ad section required credit cards and phone numbers, and all suspicious ads were reported to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, which necessarily made adult ad posters highly visible and easy to identify and locate.
“Craigslist has been virtually alone among the many advertising venues carrying adult ads in vigorously combating exploitation and trafficking,” said Powell.
“Consequently, Craigslist fears that its utility to help combat child exploitation has been grossly diminished,” McDougal added.
Now, the grim reality is that removing the adult services ads on Craigslist is not going to end child prostitution and human trafficking. But is there something to be said for principle? It’s a dangerous way to approach a debate like this one, but the fact is that while Craigslist may have instituted measures to combat child prostitution and trafficking on the website, they were not getting all of them. In fact, it appears that they were missing most of them.
In March 2009, the FBI found 2,800 child prostitution ads on Craigslist. But since implementing their screening standards, the company has only reported 109 suspicious ads to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, less than 1% of the site’s 700,000 ads, which means that of the $44 million that Craigslist was on track to rake in this year from its adult services section (over one-third of the company’s total revenue for the year), a sizable chunk of that was coming directly from child prostitution ads. Thus, despite Craigslist’s impassioned statements touting its efficacy in combating child prostitution, the site was, nevertheless, profiting from child prostitution.
Combating child prostitution and trafficking rings means drying up the money spring on which they thrive, which Ernie Allen, CEO of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, believes was accomplished with the removal of Craigslist’s adult services category.
“We recognize that if we crack down in one area, some of this problem will migrate to other areas, but frankly that’s progress,” said Allen. “We follow the money. The goal is to destroy the business model of those who sell children for sex on the Internet.”
There is also the issue of visibility: Who were the ads more visible to? Sexual predators or law enforcement? Child prostitution and trafficking rings are notoriously difficult to prosecute when there is a physical paper-trail; how does that change when the paper-trail is electronic? And I’m just going to go out on a limb and say that if I were running a trafficking ring and had to enter a credit card number to post an ad on Craigslist, I probably wouldn’t use my personal credit card.
So how are efforts to track down trafficking rings affected when buyers and sellers are anonymous, out-of-sight, and the electronic paper-trail can just as quickly vanish?
Craigslist could not be reached for comment.
Image source: smh.com.au
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