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