Craigslist: No longer pedophile-friendly

Faith Merino · September 6, 2010 · Short URL:

The virtual commons site removes its section for Adult Services ads


Regulars to Craiglist’s Adult Services section have likely noticed a new change to the Web site this weekend.  Where the “Adult” ads once were, there is now only a black box with glaring white letters spelling out “CENSORED.”  Clicking on it does no good.

After months of debate and controversy, the company has decided to remove its Adult Services offerings, but they will clearly not go quietly into the night.  The bold black “censored” box bespeaks their true feelings about the matter: they’re not happy.  In fact, one might even say they’re virtually pouting.  

The move comes two weeks after 18 state attorneys general signed an open letter to Craigslist demanding that the company remove its Adult Services section, citing the Web site’s use by sexual traffickers and predators in proffering and soliciting illegal sexual services.  Among the signatories were attorneys general from Arkansas, Connecticut, Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Maryland, Michigan, Missouri, Montana, New Hampshire, Ohio, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia.  Massachusetts issued its own letter asking Craigslist to remove the Adult Services section of its Web site.

Last year the company changed its Erotic Services ads to Adult Services ads after Boston University medical student Philip Markoff was arrested for allegedly shooting and killing a masseuse that he solicited through Craigslist.  Last month Markoff committed suicide while awaiting trial.

The change from “Erotic” to “Adult” was meant to include more rigorous oversight and monitoring.  Craigslist CEO Jim Buckmaster explained last month in his blog that “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 yellow pages, newspapers, or any other company that we are aware of.”  According to Buckmaster, more than 700,000 ads were rejected by those attorneys. 

But reports continued to roll in about sexual assaults and trafficking traps that were enabled by Craigslist.  Last month, two teenagers claimed to have been trafficked through Craigslist, stating that the popular Web site was used to post ads for their services.  The men who responded to their ads “paid to rape me,” said one of the teens.  Their claims prompted anti-trafficking groups to take out an ad in the Washington Post calling for Craigslist to shut down its Adult Services offerings. 

One of the groups who helped pay for the ad was Fair Fund, which has called Craigslist the “Wal-Mart of online sex trafficking.”

The controversy surrounding Craigslist’s Adult Services ads has been heated and long-winded.  It is an unsolvable argument between freedom of speech and public safety.  On the one hand, Craigslist has become one of the world’s most prominent virtual commons and is, in many ways, a champion of free speech, offering a space where users can post, discuss, sell, or solicit just about anything.  On the other hand, what goes on in the virtual world has the power to move beyond the boundaries of the browser to affect the lives of real people. 

On the other, other hand: Craigslist makes a lot of money on those Adult Services ads.  While most of the ads on Craigslist are cost-free, each Adult Services post costs $10, which adds up to about $36 million in revenue this year alone.  $36 million translates to a third of the company’s total earnings.  Clearly, Craigslist has much more than their First Amendment rights at stake.

The company has long been sheltered under the wing of the Communications Decency Act, which protects Web sites from being held liable for what users post.  But Craigslist inhabits a strange in-between space.  Their Adult Services section has allegedly become a forum for prostitution and sex trafficking, but where are those users going to go now that there is no longer an Adult Services section?  The removal of Adult Services from the Craigslist Web site is not going to result in all of those traffickers and predators suddenly realizing the error of their ways and committing themselves to becoming better people by volunteering at their local convalescent hospital.  They will adapt accordingly, and their ads will simply be squeezed out into other virtual spaces.

Craigslist could not be reached for comment, but by the looks of the ominous black “CENSORED” box on their Web site, theydo not plan to disappear from the headlines.

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