Friday evening, after years of vilification for allegedly fostering sexual abuse, Craigslist shut down its “adult services” section. The company slapped a “censored” label over the section and went silent. It has ignored all media queries seeking an explanation.
Why the defiant label? Why the silence? What’s going on?
Here’s a theory. For some time, Craigslist has urged its critics to focus on other companies that do less to screen ads for sexual abuse. It claimed that if its sex-ad business were shut down, buyers and sellers would relocate to these outlets. That argument failed to sway the critics. So Craigslist is forcing the issue. It’s exposing where the ads will go once “adult services” is closed. And by getting out of the way, it’s challenging human-trafficking activists and state attorneys general to shift their scrutiny to other sites that host such ads.
The attorneys general summarized their case against the company in a letter (PDF) two weeks ago. They charged that “ads for prostitution—including ads trafficking children—are rampant” on the site. They noted that Craigslist had been dubbed “the Wal-Mart of child sex trafficking.” They warned that “women and children … will continue to be victimized, in the market and trafficking provided by craigslist.” They called the company “the only player in the sex industry who is in a position to stop these ads,” and they urged it to “immediately take down” its adult-services section.
Legally, Craigslist is protected by the First Amendment and isn’t responsible for ads posted by users. But it has also offered practical and moral arguments. It claims to do several things other sites don’t do: “requiring phone verification for every adult service ad,” “manually reviewing every adult service ad prior to posting,” “creating specialized victim search interfaces for law enforcement,” enlisting users to patrol the site for human trafficking, and channeling tips to child-exploitation organizations. As a result, the company says its adult-services section has become the world’s best venue for catching sex abusers.
Conversely, Craigslist has warned that if its adult section were quashed, users would relocate to sites that don’t follow these practices. CEO Jim Buckmaster claims that when the company began screening ads manually last year, users “left in droves for the numerous venues which do not monitor ads” and “do not cooperate with law enforcement.” Such lax competitors, in his view, include “the large mainstream internet portals, the major search engines, large telephone companies (yellow pages), major newspapers, [and] chain operators of alternative weeklies.”
In particular, Buckmaster has skewered eBay (which owns part of Craigslist but is in litigation over how much) and the Village Voice, which owns backpage.com. “Here’s an ad with photos (NSFW) of bare genitalia … describing specific sex acts offered,” Buckmaster wrote four months ago in the Craigslist blog, linking to a backpage.com ad. Last month, he linked to an eBay ad and warned readers:
The highly explicit photographs included in the following example ads depict young Asian females engaged in unprotected sex, along with rates and a listing of specific sex acts (in Spanish) on offer. DO NOT CLICK ON THE FOLLOWING LINKS UNLESS YOU ARE PREPARED TO VIEW HARD CORE PORNOGRAPHIC IMAGES OF UNPROTECTED SEX ACTS!
Craig Newmark, the company’s founder, joined in the blame game. “Breaking: eBay classifieds sell hard core porn and more,” shouted a headline in Newmark’s blog. He concluded: “Gubernatorial hopeful Meg Whitman was fully aware of this business during her tenure at eBay.” Buckmaster added that “countless millions in eBay pornography sales revenue” had earned Whitman the title “Porn Queen.”
Still, the attorneys general, the sex-trafficking activists, and the media kept their guns trained on Craigslist, demanding that it shut down its adult-services forum. So on Friday, with a defiant gesture, the company complied.
Suddenly, the attorneys general have been deprived of their villain. What now? Richard Blumenthal, ringleader of the AGs and a candidate for the U.S. Senate in Connecticut, ventures, “We hope that their example in doing the right thing will lead others to follow them.” Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., organizer of a congressional inquiry into online sex ads, warns, “Child sex trafficking continues and lawmakers need to fight future machinations of Internet-driven sites that peddle children.” Malika Saada Saar, the activist whose organization personally targeted Newmark (“Tell Craig To Quit Selling Sex With Kids“), says her goal now is to remove similar ads from other sites.
But that may prove difficult. “My fear is that the ads will migrate to the ‘casual encounters’ section” of Craigslist, Saar tells the San Francisco Chronicle. In the company’s huge pool of general personal ads, sex ads would be harder to identify and scrutinize. The Associated Press devotes a whole piece (“1 ‘censored’ bar won’t stop online prostitution“) to explaining why sex ads will simply relocate. And the Washington Post says legal experts worry that the closure of the adult-services division “could simply shift the ads to … other sites that would be harder for authorities to monitor.”
That’s exactly what Buckmaster and Newmark said would happen. Nobody believed them when the scenario was hypothetical. Now that it’s real, we’ll find out. Like Slate on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter. William Saletan’s latest short takes on the news, via Twitter: