Craigslist needs to step up and crack down

May 24, 2010 — by Denise Lin

When Craig Newmark created Craigslist in 1995, it began as a way to inform his friends of various local events in San Francisco. He had no idea that the site, an online network for classified advertisements, would eventually become one of the most popular websites in the country. And certainly, he was largely unaware that it would become a forum for the prostitution industry.

Over the years, the website has become the home of a plethora of sex advertisements. Beginning in late 2008, at least 200,000 have been posted in Chicago alone. The ads are expected to earn an estimated $36 million this year. The profits from the sex ads were at first donated to charity, but Craigslist now no longer promises to continue doing so.

The noblest course of action would be to, first, resume donating the existing profits to charity; the money was earned through illegal services and therefore is not really rightfully theirs.

Last year, in an attempt to better regulate the site, the former Erotic category on Craigslist was changed to an Adult Services category, and the highly suggestive photos sometimes posted on the site were subject to review and editing. Jim Buckmaster, chief executive of Craigslist, also stated that new employees would be hired to scan the new category for prostitution ads and other illegal material. Buckmaster also mentioned a $10 beginning fee for postings in the Adult Services category.

However, these measures have proved insufficient to stop the flow of sex ads. The Adult Services category is essentially the same as the former Erotic category; it will take much more than superficial changes to seriously battle the growing predicament. The manual inspections practiced by employees to minimize illegal material have failed to make a significant impact on Craigslist. As for the fee, a measly $10 has not and will not put a stopper on the prostitution advertisements; for those who earn thousands of dollars off the business, $10 is a small price to pay.

Despite the offensive and dangerous nature of the sex ads, Craigslist has won numerous legal cases. For example, according to ABC News, in October of last year, Craigslist was deemed not legally responsible for the content of its postings, and was allowed to keep the sex ads.

Such rulings are largely because the Communications Decency Act of 1996 protects websites, stating that they are not legally responsible for content provided by their users.

Although Craigslist has been protected by this law time and time again, it has indeed become a source of violence and prostitution. In order to eliminate all gray area, executives would need to eliminate the Adult Services category entirely, for given the difficulty of regulating such an immense site, there will never be enough employees to fully eliminate scandalous ads, and there will always be one too many loopholes available to perpetrators.

Craigslist did take some preventative measures last year, making it mandatory for erotic services advertisers to submit both a phone number and credit card to Craigslist. That is the equivalent of asking a robber to leave his contact information and all 10 fingerprints neatly on the nearest table; perpetrators can easily submit false information. Rules dependent on the honor system are unlikely to be effective.

The sex ads have earned a whopping amount of cash for Craigslist, but they are illegal and against Craigslist’s policy anyway. While Craigslist would earn significantly less profit with their removal, employees would eventually adjust, as they survived previously with the absence of the ads.

Furthermore, Craigslist’s former Erotic Services Category was a source of violence. In one case, a man, Philip H. Markoff, was arrested for supposedly killing a masseuse he met via Craigslist. While such cases remain relatively rare, they should not be happening at all.

And even though this would in no way put a damper on the prostitution industry as a whole, it would move sex advertising to a less public domain.

Craigslist may never be directly pressured by the law to eliminate its Adult Services category, but that is what needs to be done if its executives and staff want to keep themselves out of hot water.

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