Tech Talk

Observations from Jamie DeLoma, journalist and computer nerd

Dirty truth behind Craigslist’s decision to drop adult services

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Craiglist’s decision to drop its adult services section is being hailed as a victory — but is it really?

The popular classifieds site replaced the link to its section with the word “censored” this weekend. The site has been facing mounting legal and public pressure to kill the section and has been the subject of wide-spread criticism for its promotion of prostitution, child trafficking and erotic massages. It was not immediately clear as to why it made the decision to pull the content when it did.

Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., scheduled a House Judiciary Committee hearing later this month to probe how sites like Craigslist are used to “facilitate criminal activity,” the San Francisco Chronicle, a sister publication of Tech Talk, reported.

“Craigslist’s decision demonstrates a commitment to seeing these horrific abuses end, and I commend them for taking this step,” she said in a statement released Saturday.

Perhaps the decision demonstrates a commitment to seeing the abuses end, Rep. Speier; but it also represents a great threat to our First Amendment rights and marks a dangerous precedent that the congresswoman seems too ignorant to recognize. However, Tech Talk does also commend Craigslist on one point – for choosing to state things as they really are. Craigslist was indeed censored. It must be a proud day for you, Congresswoman. You successfully limited free speech and commerce on a U.S.-based website. Bravo.

Jim Buckmaster, chief executive of Craigslist, defended the site last month in an interview with The Chronicle.

“Is moving advertising around our best hope for addressing these harms?” he asked the newspaper. “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?”

Buckmaster is correct. It’s clear that the problem will not go away with the death of a section. The individuals publishing the advertisements will simply go elsewhere to find what they are seeking — both on Craigslist and on other websites. Driving this problem underground will not help anyone, but will rather cause more problems.

HOW WE GOT HERE

When the attorneys general from more than 40 states demanded changes to the way Craigslist does business two years ago, the site began requiring posters to provide verification information in a good-faith effort to encourage compliance with its regulations. And for the past year, according to The Chronicle, Craigslist has manually screened every ad — yes, every single ad — submitted to the adult section prior to publication. Further, whenever advertisements indicating involvement of an underage person was detected, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children was notified, Buckmaster told the newspaper.

Just over a week ago, a group of state attorneys general said there were not enough protections against blocking potentially illegal ads promoting prostitution, the Connecticut Post reported.

LOCAL TIES

Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal is one of 18 misguided attorneys general who pressed for the change.

“I’m very pleased that Craigslist has taken this significant step toward eliminating … ads for prostitution that were so flagrant and blatant, and my hope is that it will set a model for other sites,” he said. “Craigslist is voluntarily doing the right thing.”

Does Blumenthal really believe that will solve the problem? At least Craigslist was doing something about the disheartening posts.

Now, the ads will be posted without any regulation elsewhere on the site. Tech Talk hopes Blumenthal can sleep tonight knowing that he just accomplished the complete opposite of what he vowed to do. Doubt that? Don’t. He acknowledges it.

“These ads will migrate elsewhere and we’re going to continue to monitor and scrutinize this site and others to pursue similar prostitution ads,” he said.

Good luck with that, Mr. Blumenthal. And sleep tight.

And what model is the attorney general hoping other sites will follow? One that restricts user freedoms?

CREATING A GREATER PROBLEM

Now the posters will likely simply post their advertisements elsewhere on Craigslist — or on other sites — as Connecticut’s attorney general predicted. Looking for a new apartment, home or blender? Here’s hoping there aren’t any impressionable young children around.

All of the progress Craigslist has made in screening the advertisements in the adult section will be impossible to duplicate throughout its expansive site — and you may never know for sure what will pop up. Be sure to send Mr. Blumenthal and Congresswoman Speier notes of appreciation when you get the not-so-pleasant surprise.

Just because a few people do not want to see something does mean it should removed from an entire site — or the entire Internet.

BRAVE NEW WORLD

In terms of civil liberties, it is always better to air on allowing a few potentially inappropriate things to be said or posted than cut speech to everyone — which is exactly what this ruling does. Tech Talk hopes Rep. Speier and Mr. Blumenthal is happy.

Tech Talk hopes they don’t have any young relatives who post inappropriate photos to Facebook, MySpace, YouTube, Flickr or the pleathora of other sites out there — because their freedoms to do so may be cut. Do yhry really believe other sites will want to face the backlash Craigslist did? And who gets to determine what is inappropriate anyway? Perhaps it’s a minor with alcohol? Perhaps it’s one’s belly button? Perhaps it’s cleavage? Perhaps it’s any skin on any female? Perhaps one’s arms are too risque. We’re entering very dangerous territory.

Craigslist demonstrated that they were working to solve the problem, and should have been commended for that. Sure the system was not perfect, but most are not. Have you ever surfed through the comments section of many websites? Bad stuff appears, it’s a problem but certainly not a reason to censor.

Web publishers are generally protected by the Digital Millennium Copyright Act and Communications Decency Act from the illegal actions of third parties who use their sites, though there are narrow exceptions in the latter law when it comes to criminal statutes, the Chronicle reported.

Let’s be frank: We are approaching a pivotal moment in history.

The legal pressure could force websites to adopt conservative policies that could squash free speech, expression and a steady flow of information from being posted online — essentially endangering everything America holds dear. Let’s reject those efforts — before it’s too late to even speak out against them.

Jamie DeLoma

2 Responses

  1. R.Wood says:

    whats next? close down bars,clubs,raves,because those places have harmed more people, then the “one” unfortunate girl, whos parents stepped in “after” her death, to try to be the parents they should have been before her death,and were so outraged at craigslist, that they would trample the rest of americans rights, by going after what they viewed as the vehicle of their daughters demise.this enacting of laws because of an upset parents outrage is stupid, and costly, and actually hasnt solved any problems, but have made a joke of american justice,and have added huge debts to states trying to prove that their the elected officals that care. hmmm. i wonder do any of you know how many caring officials have sex cases?drug cases?ethic issues?taking bribes?no ones taking their rights!!no ones even pointing them out.theyll take your rights but god forbid you look into them.i say craigs list start a new section “corrupt officials and their crimes,and have anyone who finds something on an elected official submit it to the new section.they want to clean up the world?lets clean them up!!!!see if they back that idea.google corrupt officials and youll be amazed what you find.

  2. Nancy says:

    I applaud your passionate plea to protect our first amendment right. This move to rid craigslist of the adult section will only harm other users of the site. How difficult was it to NOT click in that section if that was not the type of ad you were seeking? Aren’t plans in the works to allow pornography sites the opportunity to go from .com to .xxx? Wouldn’t that make it easier for parents to teach their children what to avoid?

    If all the adult content was at least centered in one location, it could be monitored and hopefully illegal activities could be squashed. By taking away the fence, these people are allowing the very material they object to permeate the rest of society. Tech Talk is correct – this is a very thin line we are walking, and I hope legislators pay very close attention to the effects of their decisions.