By Cecilia Kang
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 15, 2010; 11:31 PM
Under pressure from law enforcement and Congress, Craigslist said Wednesday it had permanently taken down its adult services ads on its highly popular classified site in the United States.
The move is the first of its kind for a company that has become not only a place to buy used furniture and find apartments, but also a symbol of a free-speech, no-limit Internet. Craigslist yielded to the complaints of advocacy groups who say the firm's Web sites are being widely used in the global sex trade of women and children.
The San Francisco company complied, but not without hinting at what the actions of government officials could portend for the future of the Web.
After state law enforcement officials asked Craigslist to eliminate adult ads earlier this month, the company replaced those listings with a single word: "censored." It later dropped the label, but not before prompting protests from free-speech advocates.
Craigslist officials, who testified Wednesday at a House Judiciary subcommittee hearing on child sex trafficking, did not address calls to shutter adult services ads on some Craigslist sites outside the United States, where they continue to run.
Still, the company's decision was applauded by advocacy groups that said Craigslist had become a massive online marketplace for sex predators.
These groups and state law enforcement officials said they focused on Craigslist because it is the largest classified site in the world. They added that other, smaller online ventures should be pushed to follow Craigslist's lead.
"Web sites escape liability when an ad on their site results in rape, prostitution and even death," Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) said. "Our priorities are out of balance, and perpetrators are taking advantage."
Ernie Allen, president of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, noted that each year about 100,000 boys and girls become prostitutes. "Internet services have made it possible to pimp these kids, offering them to prospective customers with little or no risk," he testified.
But Craigslist officials warned that blocking the ads would push the sex trade further into the shadows. "Those who formerly posted adult services ads on Craigslist will now advertise at countless other venues," said William "Clint" Powell, a director of customer service and law enforcement at Craigslist. Though they were invited to the hearing, the company's chief executive, Jim Buckmaster, and its founder, Craig Newmark, did not attend.
Unlike most of Craigslist's classifieds, which are free, the firm charged for adult ads, which gave it the ability to hand over credit card information to law enforcement when crimes occurred. Craigslist had made about $30 million off adult listings so far this year, said a report released before the hearing by the Advanced Interactive Media Group.
Powell noted in his testimony that in a White House meeting earlier in the summer, Obama administration officials said they considered Craigslist to be a model compared with "the countless other venues that currently host unmoderated adult content, do not assist law enforcement and do not engage in best practices."
Craigslist is shielded by the Telecom Act of 1996, which absolves it of liability for the content on its sites. Some legal experts say, for instance, that Craigslist could not be held liable for the actions of a New England man who killed a woman he had contacted through the site.
But some lawmakers questioned whether the need to protect children overrides the need to protect free speech. "Speech in the form of postings that incite violence against children is not protected speech," Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-N.J.) said.