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Editorial

A less-sexy Craigslist

Craigslist's decision to close its adult services section won't make much of a dent in the sex trade, but hopefully the techniques it used to make criminals easier to track and prosecute will spread.

September 18, 2010

Craigslist, a leading outlet for classified advertisements online, announced this week that it had permanently closed its controversial adult services section. Worn down by pressure from state attorneys general and advocacy groups, Craigslist will no longer provide a venue for pimps and prostitutes to advertise through thinly veiled offers for "out-calls" and "in-calls." That's a good thing for Craigslist's reputation, but it won't make much of a dent in the sex trade.

Federal law protects Craigslist and other sites that publish user-generated content, even if that content promotes an illegal activity. In addition, the company has placed a growing number of controls on its ads for adult services, reviewing each entry and creating a paper trail of phone numbers and credit card receipts for investigators to follow. As a result, adult services ads on Craigslist have dropped sharply, the company's statistics show.

Nevertheless, the complaints continued. In August, two women who said they were victims of sex trafficking took out ads in the Washington Post and the San Francisco Chronicle urging Craigslist founder Craig Newmark to shutter the adult services section. "New traffickers are putting up ads every day," they warned, "because they know it's less risky and more profitable to sell girls on Craigslist than to deal drugs."

After trying to find more ways to make the section less hospitable to the sex trade, Craigslist decided instead to close it on Sept. 3. That's a mixed blessing. The adult services section gave prostitutes and their customers a convenient way to find each other, making it easier for those crimes to be committed. Keeping it open may have endeared Craigslist to libertines and libertarians, but it was corrosive to the company's reputation. There also was the risk that the anti-Craigslist fervor would prompt lawmakers to remove the legal shield that protects sites against liability for third-party content. Such a change would stifle not just Craigslist but also EBay, Google, Yahoo and much of the rest of the online world.

Yet the objectionable ads that once ran on Craigslist are already spreading to other sites, most of which have few, if any, mechanisms for combating illegal behavior. (They also may be migrating to other sections of Craigslist, masquerading as noncommercial come-ons.) So it's hard to see the company's decision as a victory for its critics, assuming they really are interested in reining in the sex trade. As the music industry learned after it shut down the Napster song-swapping service, there's a whack-a-mole quality to illegal activity online — for every site that's removed, two pop up to take its place. One can only hope that the techniques Craigslist used to make criminals easier to track and prosecute will spread as well.

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