Craigslist: The “Walmart of Online Sex Trafficking”?

On August 24, 2010, seventeen attorneys general from Arkansas, Connecticut, Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Maryland, Michigan, Missouri, Montana, New Hampshire, Ohio, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia wrote an open letter to Craigslist, requesting that the website remove their “adult services” section. In the letter, the attorneys general explained that the “increasingly sharp public criticism of Craigslist’s adult services section reflects a growing recognition that ads for prostitution — including ads trafficking children — are rampant on it.” “We recognize that Craigslist may lose the considerable revenue generated by the Adult Services ads,” the letter goes on to state, “[but] no amount of money, however, can justify the scourge of illegal prostitution, and the suffering of the women and children who will continue to be victimized.”

This isn’t the first time that Craigslist has received public criticism for its sections regarding adult content. Craigslist created this section of their website so that posters could advertise for “legal escort services, massages, exotic dances, erotic phone lines and other services whose ads often contain adult content.” Craigslist contends that creating a separate category for these services helps to insulate the community, by keeping these ads in a specified location and away from users who might not be interested in reading them. Further, a separate category allows Craigslist to impose special measures on users who post ads of the adult content nature, in order to deter them from posting unlawfully.

The letter from the attorneys general went on to accuse Craigslist of profiteering, but made no mention that, as with the majority of their advertisements, the company did not charge for adult services ads until it was pressured to do so by those same attorneys general.  In November 2008, under fire from 40 attorneys general, Craigslist began to require posters in their then-named “erotic services” section to provide a working telephone number and to pay a $5 fee charged to a valid credit card. This response was suggested by law enforcement officials as a way to encourage compliance with website guidelines and to make it easier for officials to identify and apprehend anyone who is using Craigslist’s services unlawfully. Craigslist donated one hundred percent of the revenues from this fee requirement to nonprofits up until at least last spring, until nonprofits began to rip up donation checks in front of media cameras in protest of the company.

In May 2009, Craigslist changed the name of its “erotic services” section to “adult services” and adopted a manual screening process for every ad submitted to this section before it could be published. Additionally, Craigslist implemented an electronic keyword filtering process that identified and blocked certain words associated with inappropriate or illegal postings. Craigslist maintained that any advertisement containing words that indicated an underage person’s involvement immediately was reported to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Craigslist also contends that the company “voluntarily continued to develop, test and implement new technologies designed to identify and address attempts by abusive third parties to circumvent [the] keyword filter[ing process].”

In April 2009, Craigslist also began attempts to block pornographic images from being posted in advertisements in the adult services section. That same month, public backlash against Craigslist skyrocketed as news broke of the case of Philip Markoff, a 24-year-old Boston University medical student who was accused one count of first-degree murder and two counts of armed robbery, all involving women Markoff met through advertisements on the adult services section of Craiglist. Markoff’s arrest brought the website to the front and center of public attention when the media dubbed him the “Craigslist killer.” (Markoff committed suicide in jail on would have been his one-year wedding anniversary.)

Despite this long-running legal battle, on September 3, 2010, the “adults services” disappeared from the website and was replaced with black banner labeled “censored” in white letters. In a statement following the termination of the section, a spokesman for Craigslist voiced his concern that the removal of the “adults services” section would be of little assistance in ending these types of advertisements for good, stating “those who formerly posted ‘adult services’ ads on Craigslist will now advertise at countless other venues. It is our sincere hope that law enforcement and advocacy groups will find helpful partners there.”

The termination of the “adult services” section came shortly after the court dismissed a lawsuit brought by Craigslist against South Carolina’s attorney general Henry McMaster, who publicly threatened to file criminal charges against the company if they did not remove all ads relating to pornography or prostitution from the South Carolina Craigslist by 5:00 pm Friday, May 15, 2009 (which just happens to be my BIRTHDAY!).  In the lawsuit, Craigslist argued that McMaster’s threatened criminal prosecution:

1. violated Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which states in relevant part that “[n]o provider…of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”  47 U.S.C. § 230(c)(1),

2. was an unlawful prior restraint on First Amendment protected free expression, and

3. violated the U.S. Constitution’s Commerce Clause by unreasonably burdening interstate commerce.

The lawsuit was dismissed for lack of standing once McMaster backed away from the criminal claims he was making at the time the suit was filed, and therefore the allegations in the complaint were no longer deemed to be true and no longer required relief. While the CDA, DMCA (which we all know further protects websites from liability over the actions of its users) and First Amendment all seemed to favor Craigslist in this case, stepping into the realm of prostitution and child sex trafficking as alleged by McMaster gave Craigslist’s arguments less teeth. In the dismal the court failed to address any Craigslist’s arguments, so questions regarding how this cause would have turned out still remain. In the end, McMaster’s referred to Craigslist’s ultimate decision to remove the “adult services” section as a “victory for law enforcement” though analysts believe that the company’s decision to remove the category was merely the result of too much public pressure and the lack of funding to handle potential future lawsuits.

Craigslist gave no official explanation for the termination of the category but I believe they may have been making a statement by replacing the section with the “censored” label as opposed to just silently removing it. Craigslist’s chief executive has been steadfast in his opinion that removing the adult section will not address the underlying issue, and I tend to side with him. Law enforcement should be going after the people behind the advertisements, not the company that posts them. By no longer giving a specified area to post adult content related advertisements, posters will no doubt just move their ads to a different section on the website (such as “personals” or “misc romance”). This defeats the company’s original purposes of keeping these ads in one place so that viewers who don’t want to see them don’t have to, and focusing them towards an area that was more monitored and restricted by the company. Basically, this opens the doors for pimps and traffickers to sell women and children without even having to so much as pay for the advertisement. Additionally, the removal of this section makes it more difficult for law enforcement to monitor crimes and prosecute criminals, as Craigslist retained information from the advertisements posted on their site and was very cooperative with law enforcement. Even more frightening is that now these criminals may be more inclined move their advertisements to other websites that are less monitored and less cooperative with law enforcement and their crimes could go virtually undetected.

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~ by didiperez on October 25, 2010.

9 Responses to “Craigslist: The “Walmart of Online Sex Trafficking”?”

  1. I think the biggest concern is probably that they will move their advertisements to new websites. There will be overseas websites that will happily provide the service to United States citizens for a change. I think it made their jobs easier to have all the ads in one place where Craigslist had the peoples’ phone and credit card numbers. In the future, people will be able to operate anonymously. It seems like all the pressure put on Craigslist to make a change was lacking foresight.

    However, the problem is that such egregious crime almost forces such a response from the public/police. It’s not such a good thing to have people trafficking in minors without much recourse. It’s too bad that the problem being “solved” will probably be short-lived.

    I agree with you that Craigslist was probably making a statement when it put censored over the link. I tried to look for it when I was only part of the way through your post and noticed that not even the censored thing is there. After all, it has been well over a month. I do wonder why they didn’t leave it for good, though.

  2. I definitely agree with the idea that media/public pressure is what ultimately caused Craigslist to remove the adult services link. It just seems like every time something is sensationalized in the media or causes some form of public outrage, a company seeking to protect the rest of their business and reputation, caves under the pressure.

    In reality, if Craigslist was able to garner some sort of background check on its advertisers, any sort of “check” is preferable to what other (probably offshore) services would provide. I’m not saying that the system Craigslist implemented was perfect, considering a credit card could easily be canceled, etc, however, its better than nothing. So, yes the “biggest” glitch on the screen may no longer exist, but the underlying problem is still not resolved. These services are still going to be offered and just because Craigslist is no longer a viable source, other venues will easily fill the void.

  3. First, let me say I am a little disappointed and you know why. 😉

    Second, I agree that this seems like they are just putting a band-aid over a hemorrhage. I doubt they are really limiting the flow of human trafficking or prostitution. And, let’s be honest, do we really care about prostitution? It goes on all over our country and while we make arrests, it is still abundant and still fully operational. I think the real concern for me is the human trafficking aspect. This is a problem but I doubt closing Craigslist ads will even curtail such an international problem.

    On the other hand, closing Craigslist ads will remove one convenient avenue of communication for traffickers and pimps so in that respect it accomplishes a small win for law enforcement. So, in that respect it’s a good thing to not allow a website to provide people with the ability to buy a used car and a hooker.

  4. I completely agree with everything you said Didi. It’s hypocritical for the AGs to insist that CL charge and then berate them for profiting (when in fact they were donating the money until they couldn’t anymore).

    Furthermore, since CL was so cooperative with the government, i think it was a GOOD thing that they had this because it provided an extra avenue for effective law enforcement.

    I personally got to interview undercover officers who conducted sting operations. Specifically, they found prostitutes on CL and busted them. They raved about the success of being able to catch these women via CL. In fact, one of the women had fled the state and was found on the CL site in some state out west. As a result, they were able to contact authorities to have her busted, detained, and extradited.

    Of course this is only one instance of success by using CL. However, I wonder how many children and women are actually trafficked through CL?? I doubt it is enough to justify removal of the adult content portion. Sketchier websites probably get used for those illegal purposes more often than CL, or at least that is my hypothesis.

    Plus, there are so many ways around it that people probably still post on craigslist. For example, check out this babe: http://gainesville.craigslist.org/w4m/2027188369.html (BTW she likes red heads. takers anyone?). Yes, she claims to be legal, but it’s so easy to post on the personals. Actually that is how the undercover guys busted the prostitute I prosecuted over the summer. If prostitutes can get around it, so can human traffickers. The system that CL set up provided for easier detection and ID verification, which likely increased the “bust” rate.

    AGs – you FAIL.

  5. I agree with Timothy, forcing Craigslist to remove the adult services section will accomplish nothing. As we’ve seen with all the illegal sites that allow you to stream copyrighted tv and movies, as soon as one site is removed, there is a mirror site up within hours. I don’t know if CL keeps a copy of all content posted on their site, and I certainly don’t have enough knowledge to know if it’s possible for someone else to keep a mirror of the site, but it seems that taking these posts and ads down only means that users have to look a little harder to find out where they’ve been moved. Might that deter some people? Maybe, but the people that really want to traffic in women and children are not going to let CL censorship stop them. Now, it’s spread throughout the internet, determined people can still find it, and it won’t be as easy to deter as it was on CL.

    I don’t think people would try to move the ads to another part of Craigslist, since that site seems pretty well monitored. As I understand it, if there was an adult services ad elsewhere on the site, users would report it and it would be taken down.

    I’m not sure what the solution to track these people might be… maybe bring back the Trusted Identities debate? (kidding of course!)

  6. I was surprised to read a lot of this. I know that Craigslist has historically sought to remain relatively open and to avoid regulating content, but I’ve noticed that the site has been forced to respond to a lot of the scams and illegal activity that were taking advantage of the site. I’m surprised that it went as far as requiring credit card payments in light of the founder’s earlier “hands off” goal for the site.

    I think the AGs of the states that pushed hard for it to be shut down really shot themselves in the foot and jilted Craigslist when it was making good efforts to help law enforcement. It really seems to me that Craigslist could have operated as an easy “honeypot” for law enforcement to crack down on the least sophisticated or most egregious offenders.

    Instead, as some other comments have suggested, the AGs decided to get aggressive with their efforts to have Craigslist remove the section. Just like the torrent listing sites, when you shut down one operation that’s within your jurisdiction, you create the opportunity for a new one to open outside of your jurisdiction and grow a user base, which, I think we can all acknowledge, isn’t going away as a whole. Shut down ISOnews? Piratebay pops up. Shut down SuprNova? Mininova pops up. Shut that down? Monova’s up within a week. This is will follow the ordinary story on the Internet. Even if the AGs weren’t familiar with that history, the result of their actions should have been predictable.

    I’d be surprised if there wasn’t already a website operating out of an uncooperative jurisdiction that offered all the features and content that the Craigslist section did and possibly more. Strict enforcement and aggressive opposition will only make these problems harder to address.

  7. Craigslist has many varied sections on it. You can buy a used bicycle from another college student. You can advertise technical support services. You can attempt to link up with a missed connection. You can even post an offer for a random intimate encounter with some random Internet creeper who responds.

    That being said, to explicitly advertise through the Adult Services section when it existed seemed to touch upon a certain level of illicitness and flaunting of laws prohibiting prostitution.

    While I feel the actions of the attorneys general of the varying states were clear examples of demagoguery and hypocrisy, the fact of the matter is that nothing good came out of the Adult Services section of Craigslist. Two wrongs don’t make a right, but I don’t know how many people in and outside of the law will actually miss the Adult Services section.

  8. Maybe I’m just an amoral scourge on our society, but I feel Craigslist really got the short end of the stick on this one.

    As Scotty indicated, although I personally have nothing to gain or lose with the removal of the Adult Services section, I’m reminded of Voltaire’s famous quote (I’m paraphrasing here) “I disagree with what you say but will defend to the death your right to say it.” I think we all lose a little bit every time a First Amendment issue is decided (in or out of the courts) on the side of censorship.

    As both Didi and Craigslist noted, the behavior sought to be prevented will still occur even after this one section of a website is removed. Of course it will have to take a different form, and perhaps become more inconvenient, but I don’t think this change will have any sort of a meaningful impact on the prostitution industry in America. It survived for a long time before Craigslist, and I don’t think the Adult Services removal will be its deathknell.

    Further, I think that Craigslist did admirably in cooperating with authorities each time the rules were changed. First, it never sold or ratified any of the conduct complained of; it only provided an online message board for a wide variety of products and services, the vast majority of which are totally legal. Then, it only charged for the adult services postings because law enforcement told it to, and even then, it donated all proceeds to charities, until the charities publicly denounced the money. The site appears to have put legitimate effort into stopping the targeted ads and conduct, but it is unreasonable to expect a website to effectuate an across-the-board eradication of such age-old crimes, especially in only a couple of years.

    Finally, the sensationalism from the Criagslist Killer case forced it to shut down a message site that I believe to be consistent with the First Amendment. I say sensationalism because I find it very hard to believe that the Adult Services section of the Craigslist website caused this man to transform into a serial killer. Rather, I think the more rational explanation is that this man was disturbed already, and Craigslist was the particular medium through which his maladjustment got manifested. To say that this man’s behavior was Craigslist’s fault seems like a knee-jerk emotional reaction to hearing the gruesome details of the case and wanting to blame someone besides the killer himself.

    I think the real victim is the American people in having another small slice of First Amendment protection chilled from judicial analysis.

  9. Very well put Didi. I think I tend to fall on the Craigslist side of the debate as well. It is a real shame that Craigslist’s First Amendment arguments didn’t receive any judicial attention, and that those arguments lost outside of court to pressure exerted by the AGs. This sort of pressure to silence protected speech is just what the Constitution protects us from, and I think it has failed Craigslist in this particular instance.
    While I’m on the Nick and Scotty end of things, insofar as I hadn’t even noticed the section was gone, I still think that Craigslist was well within its right to post such a section, especially given the amazing efforts the company made to regulate and control illegal advertisements and assist lawmakers – not to mention its good faith contributions to charity.
    eBay, Amazon, and even Google (along with many other online marketplaces) are in a similar position with respect to counterfeit goods sold/advertised on their sites. In each case, courts in the US and abroad have considered the efforts made by the company to prevent the sale/advertisement of illegal goods in violation of trademark holders’ rights. Though the outcome was not always the same, these sites were given the opportunity to defend themselves against positive claims of trademark violations. I think what bothers me the most about this situation is that Craigslist never had an opportunity to argue and be heard by a court of law before it was forced to remove its content.

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