The trouble with Craigslist's 'erotic services' shutdown

Its drawbacks could be far greater than any of its gains

Craigslist has announced it's closing the doors on its "erotic services" category, marking an end to a months-long battle over illegal acts arranged through the site. Illinois' Cook County Sheriff's Office sued Craigslist this past March, claiming the company's online classified service facilitated prostitution. Since then, a number of other states have joined the fight and called for the adult-oriented section to be shuttered.

Today's decision is being hailed by many as a major win. In reality, however, I'd suggest its drawbacks could be far greater than any of its gains.

Craigslist's 'Erotic Services' Shift

First, the facts: Craigslist has stopped accepting new postings to its "erotic services" section as of Tuesday and will delete the category completely in one week. A section entitled "adult services" will be introduced in its place. The new section will require manual, human approval of all entries. Posters will also have to pay $10 fee to place an ad.

"Community moderation as exemplified by our flagging system is arguably the most successful system ever conceived for eliminating inappropriate activity from a massive Internet community," Jim Buckmaster, CEO of Craigslist, states in a blog entry.

"However, with respect to this new paid category for advertising by legal businesses, we will experiment with some of the methods traditionally employed in paid print classifieds," he says.

The move comes just days after South Carolina's attorney general stepped into the ring and threatened both legal action and criminal investigation if Craigslist failed to remove the "erotic services" section. A state official described it as a "vehicle" for soliciting prostitution.

The Reality of the Craigslist Crackdown

I'm not about to deny that people are using Craigslist for prurient interests. I am, however, going to disagree with the notion that that fact warrants this type of intervention.

Love it or hate it, prostitution's been around for a long time. (Hey, it isn't called "the world's oldest profession" for nothing.) Before Craigslist was around, people found plenty of ways to get the deed done. After Craigslist's "erotic services" space is removed, I have a sneaking suspicion folks will find alternate venues once again.

Don't take my word for it -- just ask some sex workers. One woman in the biz has already gone on the record (albeit, anonymously) as saying that the shift will be little more than symbolic. People will find ways to circumvent the new monitoring system, she says, or just move to other less controlled sites to sell their services.

Here's the thing: We're blaming a venue for what people are doing inside of it. Think how many Web sites and services are used to arrange some type of illegal activity, whether it be sex- or drug-related. Are we going to one-by-one attempt to shut them all down? Would that even accomplish anything?

The Bigger Picture

I'm not alone in my sentiments (although, no doubt, there are plenty of people who would disagree). The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights advocacy group, describes the various complaints against Craigslist as "increasingly bellicose rhetoric." The site, the EFF notes, is protected by the Communications Decency Act of 1996, which shields providers of "interactive computer service" against criminal liability for content posted by outside users.

"The notion that Craigslist and [its] officers should be held responsible for third-party content on their site because they didn't do enough to satisfy the individual whims of respective state attorneys general is wholly inconsistent with the law," says EFF senior staff attorney Matt Zimmerman.

The implications, Zimmerman suggests, are enormous: By flexing their muscles against an entity such as Craigslist, state leaders are paving the way for a vastly regulated Internet that could be void of many of its current freedoms.

"If site operators were forced to screen all third-party contributions under risk of civil or criminal penalty, the Internet would lose many of the vibrant services that have made it so dynamic," Zimmerman says.

"Under such a radical re-envisioning, the Internet would ultimately become the province of rich and cautious media companies who would actively serve as gatekeepers to decide whether and how users could engage with the world."

While Craigslist's move may have a come as a result of its own internal decision, the company's willingness to cave under pressure still sends a troubling message about the power of states' legal threats. The conclusion of this battle, in more ways than one, is anything but a happy ending.

Connect with JR Raphael on Twitter (@jr_raphael) or via his Web site, jrstart.com.

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JR Raphael

PC World (US online)
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