The popular online marketplace Craigslist officially announced it would be permanently shutting down its adult services section after forceful pressure from U.S. Attorneys General and conservative organizations. William Clinton Powell, director of customer service and law enforcement relations at Craigslist, made the announcement in a statement before the House Judiciary Committee on child trafficking. The company had previously covered the adult services link with a “Censored” bar, prompting some to wonder if Craigslist was turning the very real controversy into a publicity stunt.
“As of Sept. 3, 2010 Craigslist has terminated its adult services section. Those who formerly posted adult services ads on Craigslist will now advertise at countless other venues,” Powell said, noting that Craigslist CEO Jim Buckmaster and founder Craig Newmark were unable to make it to Washington, D.C. It is our sincere hope that law enforcement and advocacy groups will find helpful partners there.”
Earlier when giving his statement, Powell explained the lengths to which the company was actively involved with both the FBI and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) CyberTipline program, as well as leading all awareness efforts for the National Trafficking Hotline. The adult services category was added to the site in 2001, at the request of Craigslist users tired of seeing adult ads mixed into the personals categories, Powell said. “They wanted a separate category of such ads, similar to what yellow pages, newspapers and other advertising venues have done for decades,” he explained.
Powell said the company prides itself on their responsiveness to law enforcement requests for information, with the goal being to turn around inquiries within one business day. He testified that he had personally been told many times by law enforcement officers that Craigslist is “by far” the most responsive Internet company they deal with. “Indeed, we receive these compliments both verbally and in e-mail correspondence on a regular basis,” he said.
The adult services section was removed after attorneys general from 17 states sent Buckmaster a scathing letter demanding the site remove the Adult Services market immediately and asked the company to consider “the suffering of the women and children who will continue to be victimized, in the market and trafficking provided by Craigslist.” The letter goes on to charge the company as playing a variant of the “blame the victim” game.
The EFF (Electronic Frontier Foundation), which had defended Craigslist against what it called “censorship” of the site, posted an article written by senior staff attorney Matt Zimmermann, accusing government officials of constantly threatening the company, promising lawsuits and criminal prosecution. “No one (including Craigslist) disputes that sex trafficking is a reprehensible practice that should be vigorously opposed,” he wrote. “The dispute lies in whether law enforcement officials should be permitted to bully and dragoon private Website operators into becoming de facto censors.”
Center for Democracy & Technology President Leslie Harris said while her organization also agrees that child sex trafficking is a horrific crime, the right way to address criminal acts is through aggressive law enforcement, not by making online content platforms liable for the inappropriate or illegal actions of the users of those services. “Congress took strong action to insulate online intermediaries from liability for user-generated content in the Telecommunications Act of 1996,” she noted. “It is precisely these protections—known as Section 230—that led to the dramatic growth of social networking and made the United States the engine of Internet innovation and free expression it is today. We urge this Subcommittee to exercise great caution before it considers any action that would narrow this important legal framework.”