Sunday, September 5, 2010

Craigslist 'Censors' Itself

Embattled online classified service Craigslist apparently made a change to its U.S. website early yesterday, self-censoring its adult services section.

The section that usually reads "adult services" was replaced by the single word "censored."

It was not immediately clear whether removed the adult services and replaced them with a "censored" section that still had a link, but was inactive.

For users who accessed the account outside the U.S., the erotic services link remained active and the content appeared unchanged.

Is this an issue of free speech protected under the First Amendment as the company argues, or is it instead a thinly veiled attempt by the site to illegally promote prostitution, and the overt exploitation of children and women, as a group of U.S. Attorneys General and others maintain?

I say the First Amendment stops where crimes begin. Shame on Craigslist for barring only U.S. “customers,” while letting the rest of the world prey on the most vulnerable. But then again, the site owners may have been seduced by the proverbial 30 pieces of silver, since the profits from these illicit ads are staggering.

According to web advertising monitors AIM group, Craigslist made $45 MILLION from its sex ads last year, about one-third of its total profits. The website insists it has responded to concerns by introducing in the past year a system of weeding out the most egregious advertisements, claiming to have rejected 700,000 items since May 2009.

A news media investigation of Craigslist's adult services section, which replaced "erotic services ads" two years ago, counted more than 7,000 ads in a single day. Many offered thinly veiled "services" for anything from $50 for a half-hour to $400 an hour.

Thus, the sex services portion of the website was criticized as a clearing house for prostitution. It exposed Craigslist to several damaging scandals, the most serious of which was the killing in April last year of Julissa Brisman, a 25-year-old masseuse from New York, in a Boston hotel. Philip Markoff, her alleged murderer, was dubbed the Craigslist killer because he had arranged to meet her through the site. He killed himself in jail last month.

Brandon Petty pleaded guilty last month to sexually attacking with a knife four women who had advertised for sex through Craigslist. He faces up to 45 years in prison.

Also last month, an advertizement was placed in the Washington Post and another newspaper under the headline "Dear Craig," in which two women said they had been forced into prostitution with johns/punters attracted through the website. One of the women said she had been sold by the hour at rest stops while the other said she had been a victim of sex trafficking from the age of 11.

Though Craigslist has faced an intensifying public relations crisis, it is shielded from prosecution by a U.S. federal law that protects Internet providers from the actions of their users.

"This step is very much in the right direction," said Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal today when he heard the news. Blumenthal spearheaded the letter from 17 Attorneys General who had banded together to urge Craigslist to completely discontinue its adult services section.

"These prostitution ads enable human trafficking and assaults on women," said Blumenthal. "They are flagrant and rampant. Craigslist has lacked the wherewithal or will to effectively screen them out."

Craigslist representatives have said that they will release a statement at a later time.

"The message here is put people over profits," said Blumenthal, who is running for the U.S. Senate from Connecticut as a Democrat. He said officials will continue monitoring Craigslist and other websites for such content.

"The increasingly sharp public criticism of Craigslist's Adult Services section reflects a growing recognition that ads for prostitution – including ads trafficking children – are rampant on it," the Attorneys General had said in an Aug. 24 open letter to Craigslist CEO Jim Buckmaster [Depicted in photograph at top] and Founder Craig Newmark.

A Craigslist spokeswoman said at the time that the site agreed with at least some of the letter.

"We strongly support the attorneys general desire to end trafficking in children and women, through the Internet or by any other means," said Susan MacTavish Best, who handles press inquiries for Craigslist.

"We hope to work closely with them, as we are with experts at nonprofits and in law enforcement, to prevent misuse of our site in facilitation of trafficking, and to combat such crimes wherever they appear, online or offline," she said.

In their letter, the attorneys general highlighted an open letter, which appeared as a Washington Post ad, in which two girls said they were sold for sex on Craigslist.

When the ad came out, Buckmaster wrote a blog post in response that said, "Craigslist is anxious to know that the perpetrators in these girls' cases are behind bars."

"Craigslist is committed to being socially responsible, and when it comes to adult services ads, that includes aggressively combating violent crime and human rights violations," Buckmaster recently blogged.

The Attorneys General letter also highlighted a report in May by CNN's Amber Lyon, who posted a fake ad for a girl's services in the adult section. She received 15 calls soliciting sex in three hours.

Earlier this month, Lyon interviewed a woman named "Jessica" who sells sex on Craigslist. The woman said a Craigslist ad was "the fastest, quickest way you're for sure going to see somebody that day."

In a later blog post, Buckmaster said Craigslist implemented manual screening of adult services ads in May 2009. "Since that time, before being posted each individual ad is reviewed by an attorney," the post said.

He said the attorneys are trained to enforce Craigslist's posting guidelines, "which are stricter than those typically used by yellow pages, newspapers, or any other company that we are aware of."

Attorneys General from Arkansas, Connecticut, Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Maryland, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, New Hampshire, Ohio, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia made the request a week after accused "Craigslist killer" Philip Markoff committed suicide in jail. The Attorneys General requested Craigslist take immediate action to stop accepting ads since it "cannot, or will not" screen them.

They accused the site of profiting from the "suffering of the women and children who continue to be victimized by Craigslist."

Markoff was charged with the April 2009 killing of Julissa Brisman. Boston Police said that Brisman, a model, advertised as a masseuse on Craigslist, and Markoff might have met her through the website.

In 2008, under pressure from state prosecutors, the website raised the fees for posting adult services ads. In 2009, it started donating portions of the money generated by adult ads to charity.

The Attorneys General letter wasn't Craigslist's first scuffle regarding sex-related ads. The site formerly had an "Erotic Services" section that was shut down in May 2009. It was pulled after a law enforcement filed suit, claiming the classifieds facilitated prostitution, and after Markoff was arrested.

The "Adult Services" section took its place shortly after. Craigslist said the postings would require manual, human approval of all entries and cost $10.

In October 2009, an Illinois judge dismissed the lawsuit saying intermediaries aren't responsible when customers use their services to commit unlawful acts.

Craigslist executives didn't give any reasoning for its policy change as of Saturday. It is unclear if the listings will remain offline permanently, or if the San Francisco-based classifieds service is making a policy statement by its action.

If the "Adult Services" section is gone for good, it's a safe bet those type of listings may soon flood other categories on the site.

The move is an important concession in the fierce debate in America between free speech and First Amendment advocates, and those seeking to clean up the web and protect vulnerable girls and women from exploitation. It follows a sustained campaign by prosecutors across the U.S. to have the sex advertisements removed.

In the absence of comment from Craigslist, it is not clear whether the shift will be permanent. It is also unclear what the concession means for other countries, including the U.K., where "erotic" services remained available today. However, the fact that the site's executives placed a "censored" block over its adult services link in the U.S. suggests that, in using that particularly loaded word at least, they have not given up the fight.

In America, we are not only bound by law but by the very foundation of our democracy to protect free speech. But we also have a sacred duty to protect our citizens from victimization. Technological advancement has exploded beyond anyone’s prediction or expectation, and has obviously out-paced our ability to police so-called computer “progress.”

If Craigslist insists on resuming this section of its site, then real, effective safeguards must be developed to ensure that the most vulnerable in our society do not become prey.

— The Curator

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