TOPICS > Politics

Craigslist Drops Adult Services Ads: What’s the Real Impact?

September 7, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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The world's largest classified ads website, Craigslist.org, shut down its profitable adult services section after accusations that it was being used for prostitution and human trafficking. Judy Woodruff gets two views on the larger legal impact.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: For 50 million Americans, the world’s largest classified Web site, Craigslist.org, is the place to go to swap furniture, land a better job, and even find a new pet. But the San Francisco-based site also posts ads for adult services. Craigslist has long claimed the spot was created only for legitimate adult businesses. And, reportedly, the company had expected it to generate $36 million in revenue this year.

But, this weekend, amid a lot of debate, the company shut down that section and placed a black “censored” label over where the link used to be. There was no comment from Craigslist whether these changes were permanent. But, in a blog post last month, Craigslist CEO Jim Buckmaster wrote, “The site aggressively combats violent crime and human rights violations, including human trafficking and the exploitation of minors.”

Buckmaster also defended the company’s screening process and said, it “has resulted in a mass exodus of those unwilling to abide by Craigslist standards manually enforced on an ad-by-ad basis.”

But others charge the Web site was simply a legal place to swap sex for money, sometimes using code language.

A.K.: A typical ad will say, “Sexy teen girl. If you want to have some fun, I appreciate 150 red roses per hour.”

JUDY WOODRUFF: Public outcry was bolstered by a series of high- profile incidents, including the so-called Craigslist killer, Philip Markoff. The former medical student was accused of kidnapping and assaulting one woman and murdering another in 2009. He had met both women through the Web site. Markoff committed suicide in prison last month while awaiting trial.

Two weeks ago, attorneys general from 17 states sent Craigslist a letter, demanding that it take down its adult services section. They charged the company wasn’t doing enough to deter prostitution and child trafficking. But now some who signed that letter fear the postings will gravitate to other, less-monitored categories on the site or other Web sites entirely.

LISA MADIGAN, Illinois attorney general: If it does migrate to another part of Craigslist, then this will be another battle that we have to fight in this war.

JUDY WOODRUFF: A quick search on the Washington, D.C., site came up with several ads listed under the “Casual Encounters” section that sounded similar to prostitution. One read, “I do expect a compensation, so e-mail me for details” — another: “Serious inquiries only, please. Online payment and PayPal accepted.” Advocates for organizations concerned about sex trafficking and prostitution say they will now focus their efforts on targeting similar ads on other Web sites.

Two views now on this decision and its impact. John Morris is general counsel at the Center for Democracy and Technology and an expert in First Amendment law. Tom Miller is the attorney general of the state of Iowa. He is one of the 17 attorneys general from around the country who sent the letter to Craigslist.

We thank you both for being with us. Tom Miller, I’m going to start with you. How certain are you that Craigslist was being used widely and extensively for this sort of illegal activity, that this wasn’t just isolated incidents?

TOM MILLER, Iowa attorney general: This wasn’t isolated incidents at all. We were quite certain that it was broadly used. A reporter at CNN put an ad on and — of this kind and got 15 responses in three hours. And we have talked to constituents. We looked — we looked at Craigslist and it was clear that — that it was massive in terms of the opportunity for prostitution.

And it’s not just prostitution. It’s human trafficking, the terrible, terrible abuse of — abuse of children. So, whatever efforts that they were making to keep the — keep people off that would do these things, they were failing, and maybe necessarily were failing.

But it was clear, I think, to most everybody that this was a huge source of the information that leads to prostitution and, in some cases, human trafficking.

JUDY WOODRUFF: John Morris, do you dispute that that’s what’s been going on at Craigslist?

JOHN MORRIS, general counsel, Center for Democracy and Technology: No. I think it’s probably pretty likely that these ads were for prostitution.

I think the question is not, are these ads for illegal services and should law enforcement take action against these ads and the people placing them? But the question is really, is this the most effective way to do that? And we’re not sure that it is. And, also, it raises larger questions about how speech on the Internet — you know, how law enforcement will respond to speech on the Internet.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Or, John Morris, what about the decision that Craigslist has made now to take this down?

JOHN MORRIS: Well, I mean, there are a couple questions. One is, this particular decision, did it — did it come in response to coercion on the behalf of the attorneys general? And I don’t think so. The letter they sent didn’t threaten anything. So, I’m assuming that there were no threats involved.

So, it was a decision by a single site to take this down. The larger question, though, is that our society really can’t rely on sites like this to review every posting. It’s really not realistic. I mean, if Craigslist or Facebook or YouTube had to review every single posting, those sites couldn’t exist. And, so, and the Internet innovation that we have really is the ability of users to put content up online. And that’s been a good thing.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Tom Miller, what about that point in Iowa? What about this point that it’s just unrealistic to expect a Web site to review every single submission in the kinds of things that Craigslist accepts?

TOM MILLER: Well, you know, first of all, we in Iowa benefit greatly from the Internet and its openness and really the interaction and commerce that it causes. So, we’re very supportive of the Internet and business and information through the Internet.

But we’re not talking about reviewing everything that goes on, on the Internet. We’re talking about reviewing things that are in very narrow categories that are very, very clear that abuse can take place, and serious abuse, when you talk about prostitution and human trafficking.

To review these kinds of ads and frustrate this kind of abuse, that’s not unfair. And it’s part of being responsible as a corporate citizen. I don’t — I agree with John. I don’t think that they did this because they were coerced by the attorneys general. They did it because of the public opinion and because of doing what’s right.

Clearly, this is the right thing to do. When this much harm is being caused by this kind of activity, to take it off makes every sense in the world. You know, I hope and trust that they will keep it off. I think, if they do, we owe them a real debt of gratitude of doing the right thing.

And if anything we need in American today, it’s corporations and politicians, for that matter, perhaps, doing the right thing, doing what’s good for the public, as opposed to, in some rare cases, what’s good for the bottom line.

JUDY WOODRUFF: John Morris, what’s the argument against that? I mean, essentially, what they’re saying is, we were not legally obligated or that Craigslist wasn’t legally obligated. But they did the right corporate citizen — the right corporate citizen thing.

JOHN MORRIS: Right. You’re exactly right that, as a legal matter, they had no obligation to take this down or even to monitor it at all.

And they made a corporate decision to take it down. Again, we don’t really know exactly why, because they have not made public statements since then. But the argument against it is — is that these ads will still get placed on places around Facebook. And they were previously aggregated into one category that law enforcement would be able to easily monitor and pursue. And now they’re going to be spread out over Facebook and also over other Web sites.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Are you singling out Facebook for a reason?

JOHN MORRIS: I’m sorry. I don’t mean Facebook. Craigslist. They will show up on other places on Craigslist. I wasn’t meaning Facebook.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Tom Miller, what about that, that — and this — and we have heard others make the same argument, that driving — that closing down this one adult section will drive these kinds of ads — and it apparently already has — to Craigslist more broadly and other sites, making it even harder to go after any illegal activity?

TOM MILLER: Well, this is a concept, a dynamic that we encounter in law enforcement fairly often, that — you know, that the problem is diffuse and in a lot of different places.

So, where do you start? You start with the big one. And this is one of the biggest, if not the biggest, location for these kinds of ads. So, you know, in our effort, in the court of public opinion and trying to do the right thing, the largest or one of largest does the right thing.

That has significant intangible effect on everybody, and, hopefully, a significant effect on anybody. So, this was important, very important, to start here, start at the biggest or one of the biggest ones. Then we have other issues to deal with on their site and on other sites. And we’re going to try and do that. But what is started here is that we and others have pricked the conscience of Americans in the court of public opinion. And some good things are happening because of that. And more good things in this area will happen as a result, I believe.

JUDY WOODRUFF: John Morris, you have made the case, too, that Craigslist can be viewed in a way like a telephone service, that it’s a pipeline, a tool, not a perpetrator of criminal activity.

Are you saying that there’s really no line that can be drawn when it comes to the Internet and this kind of activity?

JOHN MORRIS: Well, I mean, it’s not so much that you can’t draw a line, but people, prostitutes were killed in the old days through newspaper — you know, after newspaper ads. And we didn’t call it the Washington Post killer.

But, in today’s media age, with people poking — pointing to the Internet as kind of the root of all evil, we really have a heightened concern about — about, you know, bad things that flow from the Internet. And, so, I mean, you know, I — I think, at the end of the day, you know, the Internet does have some special considerations in terms of just how much content is there and how able sites are to monitor it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Tom Miller, a concluding thought on what obligations Internet sites like Craigslist have?

TOM MILLER: Well, I think Internet sites and everybody has an obligation to be concerned about prostitution and human trafficking.

We just had a case of human trafficking in Denison, western Iowa, just awful abuse of young people. So, when — when these ads and this kind of issue is raised, Americans need to think about the overall consequences to everybody, which, for some, they are very severe.

So, I think that, you know, as I say, we’re — we’re pricking the conscience of Americans on this issue. And, hopefully, Americans are responding in the right way to do the right thing, because this is a serious problem, and this is one of the ways to address that problem.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Tom Miller, attorney general for the state of Iowa, John Morris here in Washington, thank you both.

JOHN MORRIS: Thank you very much.