Craigslist Sued For Promoting Prostitution

An Illinois sheriff says the classified ads Web site should stop allowing erotic services ads and reimburse law enforcement agencies for the costs of policing prostitution-related crime.

Thomas Claburn, Editor at Large, Enterprise Mobility

March 6, 2009

4 Min Read

The sheriff of Cook County, Ill., on Thursday filed a lawsuit in federal court charging with facilitating prostitution.

The sheriff, Thomas Dart, is seeking an injunction to prevent further erotic services ads from being posted on the site, the award of compensatory and punitive damages to be determined at trial, and reimbursement for the more than $100,000 in costs incurred policing prostitution-related crime over the past year.

In its defense, Craigslist might argue that its ads make tracking down prostitutes easier, thereby decreasing the cost of investigations.

The complaint filed against Craigslist says that while the site does not profit directly from prostitution, the popularity of its erotic services ads is the reason Craigslist is the ninth-most-popular Web site in the country and the reason the site can charge up to $75 for job ads.

"Advocacy groups confirm the popularity of Craigslist's erotic services," the complaint states. "The Polaris Project, a group against human sexual trafficking, believes Craigslist is now the single largest source of prostitution, including child exploitation, in the country." It also cites another group, Love 146, which reports that Craigslist is used for child prostitution.

The complaint claims that authorities across the country have reported Craigslist's role in facilitating sex trafficking. "In one such instance, the FBI uncovered a sex ring involving child prostitutes in which the pimps 'posted over 2,800 advertisements on,' " the complaint states.

This is not the first time Craigslist has been confronted with such claims. Sheriff Dart says that he has sent five separate letters to Craigslist asking the site to close its erotic services section, to no avail. In March 2008, Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal sent a letter to Craigslist's attorney demanding that Craigslist police its users' postings.

"I am astonished and appalled by Craigslist's refusal to recognize the reality of prostitution on its Web site -- despite advertisements containing graphic photographs and hourly rates, and widespread public reports of prostitutes using the site," Blumenthal wrote.

That letter resulted in a joint statement issued by Craigslist and 40 state attorneys general last November in which those placing erotic services ads have to pay a $5 to $10 fee with a credit card, with that money going to combat child trafficking and exploitation.

According to the complaint, the agreement has had no perceptible effect, and the rate of prostitution arrests related to Craigslist has remained unchanged. Craigslist did not respond to a request for comment.

When asked about this issue last year, Craigslist CEO Jim Buckmaster said the site had instituted new screening procedures for erotic ads, which reduced the number posted by 80%. He insisted that Craigslist does not profit from erotic ads, unlike newspapers and free weekly papers that run erotic ads for a fee.

Craigslist does maintain a Web page to make it easy for users to report the exploitation of minors. It has also implemented the PICS content-labeling system, which is used by filtering software.

Legally, the lawsuit faces long odds because Internet law currently (mostly) immunizes Internet service providers for the posts of their users. Politically, however, it may not be tenable for Craigslist to say it's doing as much as it can if it continues to host content related to prostitution and child sex trafficking.

In a blog post, Eric Goldman, associate professor at Santa Clara University School of Law, dismisses the suit as "a sad publicity stunt."

However, he expresses uncertainty about the necessity of the continued existence of the erotic services category, where most sex service posts reside (because site users want them to be confined there). "If everything directed to this category is always illegal, it seems like Craigslist could, and perhaps should, voluntarily choose to eliminate the category altogether," wrote Goldman. "That may require Craigslist to invest some more resources policing its other categories to prevent their spamming/hijacking by the dispersed ads, but that may be the unavoidable cost of a free classified ads service."

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About the Author(s)

Thomas Claburn

Editor at Large, Enterprise Mobility

Thomas Claburn has been writing about business and technology since 1996, for publications such as New Architect, PC Computing, InformationWeek, Salon, Wired, and Ziff Davis Smart Business. Before that, he worked in film and television, having earned a not particularly useful master's degree in film production. He wrote the original treatment for 3DO's Killing Time, a short story that appeared in On Spec, and the screenplay for an independent film called The Hanged Man, which he would later direct. He's the author of a science fiction novel, Reflecting Fires, and a sadly neglected blog, Lot 49. His iPhone game, Blocfall, is available through the iTunes App Store. His wife is a talented jazz singer; he does not sing, which is for the best.

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