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Craigslist's erotic services ads draw more fire from states

Several attorneys general say the website hasn't done enough to remove illicit sex ads.

May 11, 2009|David Sarno

SAN FRANCISCO — State attorneys general from across the country are stepping up pressure on Craigslist to shutter what they call the nation's busiest virtual street corner, where prostitution runs rampant.

Craigslist says it has reduced by 95% the number of inappropriate listings on the erotic services section of its classified-ads website since November, when the San Francisco company reached an accord with more than 40 of the states' top prosecutors.

But several attorneys general say that they still find hundreds of ads for sexual services there each day and that Craigslist should do more.

"This is the world's oldest profession using the world's newest technology," South Carolina Atty. Gen. Henry McMaster said in an interview. Last week, he warned Craigslist that it would be "subject to criminal investigation and prosecution" if the erotic services section wasn't removed by May 15.

Craigslist says that it's shielded from such prosecution by federal law but that it's taking great pains to clean up its website, which research firm ComScore Inc. says attracts more than 40 million U.S. visitors a month. The privately held company's lawyers discussed its enforcement methods with a half-dozen attorneys general or their representatives in New York last week, and Rhode Island Atty. Gen. Patrick Lynch said they agreed to meet again this week.

"Criminal misuse of Craigslist is absolutely unacceptable, and we are committed to working together with law enforcement to eliminate it," Chief Executive Jim Buckmaster said in an e-mailed statement.

In a post on Craigslist's corporate blog, Buckmaster noted the quick progress in removing such listings and the continuing collaboration with law enforcement. He also cautioned McMaster "to look closely at the facts before proceeding with his threat."

Law enforcement officials have often complained about the ease with which prostitutes and their clients can arrange encounters on Craigslist. But officials have stepped up their criticism since the slaying of masseuse Julissa Brisman, whose body was found April 14 in a Boston hotel. Police say the killer found her through a Craigslist ad.

Boston University medical student Philip Markoff, 23, is accused of bludgeoning Brisman with a gun and then shooting her. Rhode Island authorities filed additional charges last week, saying he robbed a stripper at a Warwick, R.I., Holiday Inn two days later. He was arrested the following week as he drove to a local casino with his fiancee.

Markoff has pleaded not guilty.

Lynch urged Craigslist to shut down the section of its site where the majority of the suspected illicit activity originates.

"Craigslist needs to pick up the pace," he said.

Whether the owners of an online platform are themselves legally responsible for the conduct of their users has long been a contentious issue on the Internet, where the volume of new text, image and video content is so vast that monitoring every bit is all but impossible.

For that reason, federal courts have generally upheld a law that protects Internet intermediaries from criminal prosecution over the content of postings by their users, said Matt Zimmerman of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a San Francisco civil liberties group.

"This is all about bringing public pressure on Craigslist to do something that the law does not obligate them to do," Zimmerman said of the attorneys general.

He noted that the protections were originally put in place to foster growth of the Internet and its various economies. But if the services are held responsible for the actions of their users, he said, that growth will be stunted by legal worries, and "the viability of a wide range of sites instantly vanishes."

Craigslist used a similar argument last week to defend itself in a civil suit filed against it in March by the sheriff of Cook County, Ill., Thomas Dart. It accuses the site of facilitating prostitution.

Craigslist says that since striking the deal with attorneys general in November, it has built a telephone and credit card verification system to keep track of sexual service ads and implemented a flagging system through which users can alert the site to objectionable listings. It also committed to donating to charity the fees from classified ads for erotic services, which generally cost $5.

California was not part of the November agreement. Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown said in an interview that he supported the efforts of his colleagues.

"The law gives a lot of protection to Internet services providers," Brown said. But "the key here is for the company itself to do everything possible to prevent harm -- to young people particularly."

Other attorneys general say the controls that Craigslist promised to implement have been unsatisfactory.

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