Craigslist Makes World's Oldest Profession Safer

Craigslist has been under assault from state attorneys general with political agendas, the most recent being from South Carolina, for carrying ads for erotic services.
Craigslist has been under assault from state attorneys general with political agendas, the most recent being from South Carolina, for carrying ads for erotic services.South Carolina Attorney General Henry McMaster has warned Craigslist that it would be "subject to criminal investigation and prosecution" if it doesn't entirely remove its erotic services section by May 15.

Craigslist has tried to do its part to satisfy political demands, meeting with law enforcement officials and agreeing to curb ads promoting illegal activities. Craigslist CEO Jim Buckmaster noted in a blog posting that,

by all objective measures [Craigslist] has decreased misuse dramatically (approximately 90%) since craigslist and 43 attorneys general entered into a joint statement less than 6 months ago.

Among concessions to those AGs, Craigslist agreed to require advertisers of erotic ads to provide a verifiable phone number and authorized credit card -- and pay a $5 fee.

Tara Sawyer, a spokesperson for the Sex Worker Outreach Project, an advocacy group supporting the rights of sex workers and other providers of erotic services, noted that "the rest of the site is free, so why are you singling us out here?"

Singled out indeed. This isn't the first time that sex workers have been used as a political pinata -- it's no surprise to learn that McMaster is running for governor -- but this time, law enforcement officials are putting them at greater risk by pulling the Craigslist security blanket off their backs.

Sawyer told me that Craigslist ads allow prostitutes to work independently, which keeps them out of the hands of abusive pimps, and, in contrast to working on the street, gives them the opportunity to judge someone before deciding whether or not to sell them their services. "It's way safer to work off of Craigslist because we get to say no a lot earlier [in the process], and we get more opportunities to say no," she said.

Buckmaster gave added voice to that point, noting that classified ads in Craigslist afford more protection than do those posted in newspapers.

Anyone demanding that craigslist use the same protections that print classifieds have employed should be careful what they're wishing for -- because the incidence of violent crime in connection with print classifieds is clearly far, far higher than it is for craigslist.

From a purely legalistic point of view, the Electronic Frontier Foundation said the AGs have "no case."

The existence of sites that rely on third party content depends on strong uniform legal protections against liability based on material posted by users. If site operators were forced to screen all third party contributions under risk of civil or criminal penalty, the Internet would lose many of the vibrant services that have made it so dynamic.

But as Larry Dignan pointed out, the AGs will posture, even in cases where they don't stand a chance of winning (see Giuliani, Rudy) in order to score political points. While no one may have ever won an election by supporting the rights of sex workers, you might expect that, where minority rights are concerned, at least the press would show up. But you'll read nary a word in print to support this abused minority, maybe because the newspaper industry is all too happy to watch Craigslist, which has taken its classified ads business away, twist in the political winds.

As Wendy Murphy wrote in the Boston Globe:

Craigslist has contributed to the demise of newspapers across the country because its free services led to a precipitous drop in classified ad dollars. Using [it] as a whipping boy is a nice distraction, but shutting it down will do nothing to stop prostitution.

Sawyer isn't particularly surprised by the Craigslist saga, saying sex workers are routinely treated with contempt by law enforcement officials. "We're not treated like human beings, and that's what needs to change," she said.

Editor's Choice
Brian T. Horowitz, Contributing Reporter
Samuel Greengard, Contributing Reporter
Nathan Eddy, Freelance Writer
Brandon Taylor, Digital Editorial Program Manager
Jessica Davis, Senior Editor
Cynthia Harvey, Freelance Journalist, InformationWeek
Sara Peters, Editor-in-Chief, InformationWeek / Network Computing