State Attorneys General Lead Charge Against Craigslist.com

State Attorneys General Lead Charge Against Craigslist.com
September 15, 2010

Thomas Cheplick

Thomas Cheplick, a freelance reporter for the Heartland Institute, writes from Cambridge,... (read full bio)

Attorneys general from 21 states are putting pressure on Craigslist.com to shut down its adult-services section, claiming the site is facilitating criminal behavior such as prostitution and human trafficking.

Leading the charge is Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, who was the top signatory of an August letter to Craigslist Chief Executive Officer Jim Buckmaster. The letter cited several instances of prostitution and sexual exploitation of minors in requesting Buckmaster shut down the section.

“We recognize that craigslist may lose the considerable revenue generated by the Adult Services ads,” reads the letter. “No amount of money, however, can justify the scourge of illegal prostitution, and the suffering of the women and children who will continue to be victimized, in the market and trafficking provided by craigslist.”

On September 3 Craigslist replaced advertisements in the adult section with the word “censored,” prompting Blumenthal to press Buckmaster the following week to confirm the adult-services section has been closed permanently.

Federal Immunity
There may be little legal basis for Blumenthal's actions, according to Kurt Opsahl, an attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco.

"Certainly Connecticut's Attorney General Richard Blumenthal has been one of the most vocal state attorney generals who has been giving Craigslist.com a hard time over its adult section—it is interesting that he is doing this at a time of running for another office,” said Opsahl, referring to Blumenthal’s current candidacy for Connecticut governor.

“But on the legal front, the problem Connecticut's attorney general faces is that there is actually a federal law that provides immunity to service providers like Craigslist.com that they are not liable for what the people who use their services are doing."

”There are really good policy reasons why you would want to have immunity for service providers, as they are the means by which free speech on the Internet happens,” Opsahl said. “Most people would not think of trying to hold the phone company liable if somebody used the telephone to provide illegal services.”

‘Holding the Liability Bag’
 Opsahl noted services such as Craigslist.com are merely a platform upon which other people speak.

“If you did not have this federal law that provides strong protection for service providers, they would be facing tremendous liability for each post, each comment, each message—and the profit from any given post, comment, message is infinitesimally small. Having to review each comment [would be] a very difficult and expensive process [for providers],” he said.

“Out of this federal immunity for service providers, the public has greatly benefited: Yelp, YouTube, and pretty much any user-generated content Web site that allows people to post their thoughts or feelings on any subject, these services are enabled by having strong protections for service providers so [they] are not holding the liability bag for what users are doing.”

‘Next Generation Measures’
Craigslist CEO Buckmaster explains his company is already working with Blumenthal to address the concerns over the site's adult section. He notes the Web site is the only major one in America already employing preventative measures against abuse and criminal conduct.

“[Blumenthal] is well aware that among newspapers, alternative weeklies, and telephone yellow pages that have featured such ads for decades, not to mention the countless online venues for adult services advertising, only Craigslist.com has adopted the following preventative measures and other ‘best practices’ [such as] educating and encouraging users to report trafficking/exploitation, prominently featuring anti-trafficking/exploitation resources, creating specialized victim search interfaces for law enforcement, actively participating in NCMEC's [National Center for Missing and Exploited Children] cybertipline program, leading all awareness efforts for the National Trafficking Hotline, meeting frequently with experts at nonprofits and in law enforcement, manually reviewing every adult service ad prior to posting, requiring phone verification for every adult service ad, [and] implementing the PICS [Platform for Internet Content Selection] content labeling system,” said Buckmaster.

“We are not content with merely leading all other advertising venues in the measures we have taken, however, and are collaborating intensively with experts at nonprofits and in law enforcement on next generation measures," Buckmaster said.

Criminal Conduct Transportable

Opsahl points out criminal conduct has already begun to navigate away from Craigslist.com to other sites.

"Attorney General Blumenthal has already got what he wanted," Opsahl said. "But let's ask a rhetorical but important question: What's going to happen next? The people who advertise their illegal services on the Internet are going to find another Web site to advertise their wares that might not be as helpful [to the authorities] as Craigslist.com," he said.

"The premise behind Attorney General Blumenthal's attack on Craigslist.com is that you shut down one section and the problem is solved, but does that hold true? It's entirely possible they put their advertising elsewhere.”

Perplexed About Selective Enforcement

Buckmaster says Blumenthal is singling out Craigslist, despite the service’s adoption of stringent controls to prevent criminality, while his company's competitors have not done so and yet do not receive similar scrutiny.

"We are perplexed as to why Attorney General Blumenthal continues to focus only on Craigslist.com while turning a blind eye to the countless other venues that continue to offer adult services ads without having adopted any of the protective measures adopted by Craigslist.com," he said. "His office acknowledged more than a year ago that venues carrying more such ads than Craigslist.com are literally doing none of the positive things Craigslist.com does."

Thomas Cheplick (thomascheplick@yahoo.com) writes from Cambridge, Massachusetts.

On the Internet:
Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal’s Press Release: http://www.ct.gov/ag/cwp/view.asp?Q=465498&A=3869
Attorneys General Letter to Craigslist: http://www.ohioattorneygeneral.gov/CraigslistLetter

Thomas Cheplick

Thomas Cheplick, a freelance reporter for the Heartland Institute, writes from Cambridge,... (read full bio)