Sex-trafficking opponents fight Craigslist's 'adult services' ads

By Ann Gerhart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 7, 2010

Craig Newmark was all over Twitter on Friday, as he is most days, yakking about Android, re-tweeting about Bart Simpson in summer school, reminding his 24,000 followers to vote to end world poverty. He engaged with friends and strangers alike.

MC is still waiting to hear from him.

Newmark is the founder of the worldwide online bazaar Craigslist. MC is a 17-year-old girl who says she was repeatedly sold for sex through ads on Craigslist. In open letters published as newspaper ads, she has beseeched Newmark to shut down the site's lucrative "adult services" section, which law-enforcement officials and advocates say facilitates prostitution and child trafficking.

"I was first forced into prostitution when I was 11 years old by a 28-year-old man," she wrote. "I am not an exception."

The sex-selling ads have been controversial for years, and after threats of legal action from 43 state's prosecutors, Craigslist agreed to police them. But patience appears to be wearing thin, and the new scrutiny is creating a public relations nightmare for Craigslist and Newmark, once celebrated as the creator of an online Utopia.

This week brought increased pressure. Friday morning, MC's "Dear Craig" plea appeared in a half-page ad in The Washington Post, along with the account of AK, who said she had been sold for sex by the hour at truck stops, 10 hours with 10 different men each night. Friday afternoon, a federal judge in South Carolina threw out a lawsuit in which Craigslist had tried to stop authorities from investigating whether it has a role in prostitution; and by Friday night, Connecticut's attorney general had called for Craigslist to shut down its "adult section" site completely. Earlier in the week, CNN aired video of a reporter ambushing Newmark, who was unable to muster a response when confronted with ads that depicted girls being offered for sex.

The company says it uses comprehensive monitoring to bar sex ads and works with law enforcement officials to help them arrest perpetrators. Although most of the site is free, posting an "adult services" ad costs $10, and that section on the site will bring in about $36 million in revenue this year, about a third of the company's total, according to an analysis by the Advanced Interactive Media Group.

Jim Buckmaster, Craigslist's chief executive, said his firm is the wrong target.

"Like the criticisms that has been leveled against the Washington Post for its adult services ads," he wrote in an e-mail, "scapegoating advertising services is a very unfortunate misdirection of attention and energy from the tough choices, hard work, and significant investments required for addressing actual causes of, and making actual progress against the scourges of trafficking and child exploitation."

Kris Coratti, a spokeswoman for The Post, said the newspaper does "not knowingly accept advertisements from businesses engaged in illegal activities," and has long "required massage parlors to produce copies of valid business licenses before we will publish their advertisements."

Andrea Powell, head of Fair Fund, a District-based group that works with girls and teens who have been sold for sex, calls Craigslist "the Wal-Mart of online sex trafficking." She said most of the young people she works with are sold through the site, which has 20 billion page views a month. Her organization was one of the groups that paid for the Post ad and vouched for the women's stories; AK has met with Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., Powell said.

"They are aiding and abetting the commercial sexual exploitation of children, and for that reason, they should take it down," said Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.), whose Bay Area district includes Craiglist's headquarters. Speier has called for the firm to get out of the sex-ad business, as Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal (D) did Friday.

Powell and Malika Saada Saar, who heads the District-based Rebecca Project, said online pimps stay one step ahead of attempts to monitor their online activity. They said pimps drop the word "innocent" from an ad intended to appeal to a pedophile, for instance, and replace it with a new code word. "Young," "new to town," and "fresh" are common code words, the women said.

On Friday, on the Washington area Craigslist adult services section, more than 600 ads contained one of those descriptions.

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