“It’s Y2K Pimpin” (Online Sex Trafficking)

Craigslist is a centralized network of online communities that features free online classified advertisements.  Advertisement sections on Craigslist include jobs, personals, for sale, services, and community, to name a few.  Craig Newmark, Craigslist’s founder, has stated that “Craigslist works because it gives people a voice, a sense of community trust and even intimacy.”  It also, however, “promotes” illegal activity.

Craigslist’s “Terms of Use” can be found at Craigslist TOU.

By using the Craigslist service in any way, the user is agreeing to comply with the TOU.  The “Acceptance of Terms” section of the TOU makes it clear that if a user objects to any term or condition of the TOU, in any way, the only recourse is to immediately discontinue using Craigslist.  It also states that “Craigslist has the right, but it not obligated, to strictly enforce the TOU through self-help, community moderation, active investigation, litigation and prosecution.”

The “Content” section states that any content “posted on, transmitted through, or linked from” Craigslist is “the sole responsibility of the person from whom such content originated.  More specifically, you are entirely responsible for each individual item of content that you post, email or otherwise make available via the service.  You understand that Craigslist does not control, and responsible for content made available through the service, and that by using the service, you may be exposed to content that is offensive, indecent, inaccurate, misleading, or otherwise objectionable….”

Craigslist’s TOU also includes a section on “Conduct,” which lists specific content that the user must agree not to post, email, or otherwise make available.  The prohibited content includes content that is (a) “unlawful, harmful, threatening, abusive…or is harmful to minors in any way;” (b) “pornographic or depicts a human being engaged in actual sexual conduct including but not limited to (i) sexual intercourse, including genital-genital, oral-genital, anal-genital, or oral-anal, whether between persons of the same or opposite sex, or (ii) bestiality, or (iii) masturbation, or (iv) sadistic or masochistic abuse, or (v) lascivious exhibition of the genitals or pubic area of any person;” (n) “advertises any illegal service or the sale of any items the sale of which is prohibited or restricted by any applicable law….”

Subsection (n) provides a link to a partial list of prohibited items for sale and prohibited services offered for the user’s convenience; presumably so they can research the applicable laws and regulations that may apply to their transaction, because Craigslist encourages this.  The partial list includes “obscene material or child pornography” and “offer or solicitation of illegal prostitution.”

Craigslist’s “flagging system” allows users to quickly identify illegal and inappropriate postings.  Any site visitor can anonymously, and without an account log in or registration, flag a classified ad that has been posted.  Once the ad receives a certain number of flags, it is removed.

Originally, Craigslist had an “erotic services” section.  In the past few years, however, Craigslist has been criticized and given a bad reputation because of the way some of the users actually use the service.  On May 13, 2009, Craigslist announced that it would close the “erotic services” section because of allegations by several states that the “erotic services” ads were being used for prostitution.  Craigslist replaced the section with an “adult services” section, which was to charge for posting and to be reviewed by Craigslist employees.  Any ad that indicated the involvement of an underage person was reported to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

Jim Buckmaster, the CEO of Craigslist, announced that the move was “strictly voluntary, and that Craigslist has always been on solid legal footing under the Communications Decency Act of 1996,” which, if you recall from one of the principle blogs, says that websites are not legally responsible for material contributed by their users.  Craigslist isn’t legally culpable for any posts on Craigslist.

The site continued to receive criticism and complaints that the section’s ads were “facilitating prostitution and child sex trafficking,” and on September 4, 2010, Craigslist closed the “adult services” section of its website.  Instead of renaming and making changes to the section, like it did the first time around, Craigslist simply replaced the page link with the word “censored,” in white-on-black text.

In an interview, Buckmaster noted that removing the adult section wasn’t going to address the underlying issue.  He questioned “is moving advertising around our best hope for addressing these harms?  Then the ads fall under personals, and how long before the demand is that we shut down personals? And where do those ads go next? What other sections of our site would they like us to shut down?”  In a way, I think Buckmaster is right.  People continue to solicit sex on Craigslist, and other advertising websites, whether there is a specific section devoted to it or not.  And although ads posted on the section were directly violating some of the TOU, Craigslist specifically stated in its TOU that it has the right, but it is not obligated to strictly enforce the TOU.

What I want to know is what people recommend websites such as Craigslist are supposed to do.  In addition to the concern of protecting against sex trafficking, there is also the concern of protecting publishers, such as Craigslist.  Brian Carver, an attorney and assistant professor at UC Berkeley, discussed some of the issues that might arise.  He said that the legal threats Craigslist received “could have a chilling effect on online expression.”  He continued, “If you impose liability on Craigslist, YouTube and Facebook for anything their users do, then they’re not going to take chances. It would likely result in the takedown of what might otherwise be perfectly legitimate free expression.”

Buchmaster was right when he said people are just going to move the ads to the “personals” section.  I clicked on it and looked at some of the ads…it was disgusting!  And scary.  There were many that came up as “flagged for removal,” so it is clear that Craigslist is working on monitoring what people report.  However, there are still many violations of the TOU, such as pornographic images.  There are probably still many ads for sex with children and those forced into prostitution, I just didn’t know what I was looking for.

I think it’s funny that now, when you click on any of the links within the “personals” section, such as “strictly platonic,” “women seeking men,” “men seeking women,” “men seeking men,” “misc romance,” or “casual encounters,” you are taken to a “warning & disclaimer” page.  This page requires the user to (1) confirm that they are at least 18 years old, (2) understand it may include adult content, (3) agree to flag anything illegal or in violation of Craigslist’s terms of use, and (4) releasing Craigslist from any liability.  In addition, it includes a reminder that “choosing safer sex…greatly reduces the risk of contracting STDs.”

While there is no question that this is a huge problem, I don’t think that there is a clear, simple solution.  Especially when there are people, some even victims of violence, who think that the “adult services” section should be reopened because they think it increases visibility for victims and helps law enforcement track criminals.

What do you think?

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~ by natalielaw on December 6, 2010.

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