Commentary topic 09/15/10

Is legal threat to Craigslist socially responsible or is it censorship?

In April of this year, Boston police arrested Philip Markoff, a 22-year-old medical student engaged to be married, as the “Craigslist    Killer” who

murdered a pretty New York masseuse in a posh Boston hotel. The slain 26-year-old New Yorker advertised her services on Craigslist. Markoff was also the suspect in several other assaults on women who advertised on Craigslist. In August authorities found Markoff dead in his jail cell with puncture wounds to his neck and both ankles. The case seemed to be the tipping point for attorneys general and advocacy groups across the country to force Craiglist to remove its adult services section from its Web page. A letter from 17 state attorneys general dated Aug. 24 demanded that Craigslist close the section, contending that it helped facilitate prostitution and the trafficking of women and children.

Craigslist is a centralized network of online communities, featuring free online classified advertisements with sections devoted to jobs, housing, personals, for sale, services, community events, gigs, résumés, and discussion forums. Craig Newmark, an Internet entrepreneur, began the service in 1995 as an e-mail distribution list of friends featuring local events in the San Francisco Bay Area. In 1996 Craigslist developed into a Web-based service for the Bay area. By 2009, Craigslist operated with a staff of 28 people. Its main source of revenue is paid job ads in select cities. The site serves over 20 billion page views per month, putting it in 33rd place overall among Web sites worldwide and 7th place overall among Web sites in the United States (per Alexa.com on June 28, 2010). It also has over 49.4 million unique monthly visitors in the United States alone.

Over the Labor Day weekend, Craigslist shut down its “adult services” section and placed a prominent “censored” label in its place , which has most recently been removed. Some observers believe that Craigslist may be engaging in a high stakes stunt to influence public opinion. The lost ad revenue from its “adult services” section could cost the company as much as $44 million in the remaining months of just this year. Craigslist has refused to discuss its motivations for placing the ban. But using the word “censored” suggests that the company was trying to draw attention to its fight with state attorneys general over the issues of sex ads and of free speech on the Internet.

The law would seem to be on Craigslist’s side. The federal Communications Decency Act protects Web sites against liability for what their users post on the sites. As recently as last year, the efforts of attorneys general were stymied when a federal judge blocked South Carolina’s attorney general from prosecuting Craigslist executives for listings that resulted in prostitution arrests. Although there are numerous Internet sites that list adult services, Craigslist seems to be the focal point for law enforcement. Despite this recent favorable ruling, Craigslist has, at least for now, taken down the controversial section of
its Web site.

Question of the week:

Have the states attorneys general who have pressured Craigslist.org for months to discontinue posting ” adult services” and “adult gigs” ads committed an act of censorship as suggested by the new “censored” banner recently on the Craigslist site?

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