Craigslist Tough Talk by South Carolina AG Lacks Legal Foundation, EFF Says

Critics of Craigslist are calling for the site to remove its erotic services section in response to controversy. But threats by South Carolina Attorney General Henry McMaster to pursue a criminal investigation lack substance, according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation digital rights advocate organization.

It has been a rough two weeks for online community bulletin board Craigslist.

First came reports that alleged murderer Philip Markoff met his victim using Craigslist, which sparked a wave of outcry from attorneys general throughout the country. Now, South Carolina Attorney General Henry McMaster has issued an ultimatum stating that the site must either remove its "erotic services" section by May 15 or face a possible criminal probe.

But is there really a case against Craigslist? According to the EFF (Electronic Frontier Foundation), the law is on the Website's side.

"In fact, Craigslist has gone far beyond their obligations under the law," blogged EFF Senior Staff Attorney Matt Zimmerman.

Craigslist, Zimmerman contended, is protected by federal law. Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act gives providers of an "interactive computer service" such as Craigslist immunity from state criminal liability for content posted by third parties, he wrote.

"Under CDA 230, it is irrelevant that such a service might have known about the posts or could have done more to block them," Zimmerman wrote in the blog post.

According to Craigslist officials, the erotic services section was created in response to requests from users "tired of seeing ads for escort services, sensual massage, adult Web cams, phone sex, erotic dancing, adult Websites, nude housecleaning, etc. mixed into the regular personals and services categories."

In November, Craigslist signed a joint statement with the NCMEC (National Center for Missing and Exploited Children) and dozens of state attorneys general to prevent online communities and classified ads from being used for human trafficking, child exploitation and other illegal activities.

In his letter to Craigslist CEO Jim Buckmaster, McMaster stated that the Web site "has not installed sufficient safeguards since November to prohibit the Internet site from being used as a vehicle to advertise or solicit prostitution."

McMaster continued, "Also of concern is the unrestricted manner in which graphic pornographic pictures are posted and displayed by users on the Craigslist site and their accessibility to minors ... Many of the classified and communication services on the Craigslist site provide the public with a valuable service. However, it appears that the management of Craigslist has knowingly allowed the site to be used for illegal and unlawful activity after warnings from law enforcement officials and after an agreement with forty state attorneys general."

For their part, Craigslist officials said there is no legal basis for any action against their company.

"Given the progress that has been made dealing with these tremendously complex issues in a very short time, and the ongoing collaboration between Craigslist and law enforcement to make further improvements, we urge Attorney General McMaster to look closely at the facts before proceeding with his threat," officials stated on the Craigslist blog May 5.