By David A. Fahrenthold
Saturday, September 4, 2010; 9:57 PM
One of the world's biggest providers of Internet classified advertising abruptly shut down the "adult services" section of its U.S. Web sites this weekend, apparently in response to criticism from prosecutors that it had become a tool for prostitution.
But it was unclear whether Craigslist - an icon of the new media transformation of American society - had closed the site to placate those critics, or to hit back at them, casting itself as the victim of censorship. On its famously bare-bones Web sites, the blue-lettered link for adult services was gone. It had been replaced with a black box, containing one word: "censored."
Craigslist's usually outspoken leaders gave no explanation for their move and no signal as to whether it would be permanent. Last year, the site increased the screening of these ads after authorities in New England said a man had killed one woman and attacked two others he'd contacted through Craigslist.
On Craigslist sites in other nations, the "erotic" sections remained open.
The site's critics greeted the change with praise and wariness.
"They lack either the will or the wherewithal to effectively screen for prostitution ads. Which is why we [said] to them, 'Shut down the site,'" said Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal (D), one of 18 attorneys general who made that demand in a letter to Craigslist last month. He added, "we hope that their example in doing the right thing will lead others to follow them."
The long-running battle over Craigslist's "adult" or "erotic" ads - which can be thinly veiled as advertisements for a massage or can contain explicit photos and text - illustrates the complexity of policing the Internet. On one side is an iconoclastic company defending what it sees as a major virtue of the Web: the ability to create a self-regulating virtual commons. On the other are prosecutors and anti-prostitution activists who say that the anonymity of the online world can be a great vice.making it easier for people to exploit women and children in the real world
By choosing the word "censored," Craigslist seemed to signal that the battle will continue, said Jason Schultz, a law professor at the University of California at Berkeley.
"Maybe what [Craigslist is] trying to do is raise the other side of the issue, which is that there's serious First Amendment, freedom-of-information issues" on their side, Schultz said. "This seems to me completely adversarial, still."
Craigslist began as an e-mail newsletter in San Francisco in 1995, and grew into a hub for free classified ads that has more than 700 local sites around the world. The company says it has more than 50 million users in the U.S., competing with The Washington Post and other newspapers for classified ads in their circulation areas.
Most of the site's ads can be placed for free. But "adult" ads cost $10 apiece, and there are enough of them to bring in about $36 million in revenue estimated early this year - about a third of the company's total - according to a recent analysis by the Advanced Interactive Media Group.
But both prosecutors and anti-prostitution groups say these ads have become a bazaar for prostitutes and pimps. Instead of taking the risk of meeting customers on the street, the activists say, they can arrange visits in hotel rooms.
Last month, groups took out an ad in The Washington Post in which two women said they had been forced to have sex with men who had answered Craigslist ads. "Craigslist is like the Wal-mart of online sexual exploitation of minors," said Andrea Powell of FAIR Fund, one of the groups.
Authorities also say that women have been attacked by men who arranged their visits via Craigslist. The New England case was the most famous: The man accused in that case, medical student Philip Markoff, killed himself in jail in Boston last month. Last year in the Washington area, authorities said another man used Craigslist to lure women to isolated apartment buildings and rape them. He committed suicide as police closed in.
"Occasionally someone will call in" to report sexual solicitations on Craigslist, said Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler (D), one of the 18 signed the letter to Craigslist last month. But, he said, authorities usually learn about the postings after something has gone very wrong: "For the most serious offenses, we hear about them afterward, when the virtual becomes real."
Last year, Craigslist responded to criticism by closing down its "erotic services" section, and opening up a new one, "adult services."
In that section, "before being posted each individual ad is reviewed by an attorney licensed to practice law in the US, trained to enforce Craigslist's posting guidelines, which are stricter than those typically used by yellow pages, newspapers, or any other company that we are aware of," company CEO Jim Buckmaster wrote in a blog post last month.
Buckmaster said in the posting that the new system had resulted in the rejection of more than 700,000 inappropriate ads, and said these procedures put Craigslist ahead of several other online ad services.
Buckmaster and a company spokeswoman did not respond to multiple efforts to reach them for comment Saturday. "We'll have a statement at a later time," spokeswoman Susan MacTavish Best said. But none arrived.
On Saturday, legal experts said that the request to shut down Craigslist's "adult" section could carry risks for prosecutors. It could simply shift the ads to other sections of the site, or onto a galaxy of other sites that would be harder for authorities to monitor.
Craigslist can get around the shutdown by running adult ads on other parts of the site. But Jonathan Zittrain, a professor at Harvard Law School, says of those seeking prostitutes online, "They might have a harder time saying, 'Oh, I had no idea what I was doing wrong' when they didn't do it on a site that also has ads for antique collectibles and New York real estate and shared rides.''