Faster Forward: Thoughts on Craigslist and 'adult services' ads

By Rob Pegoraro
Thursday, September 16, 2010; 1:40 PM

Craigslist got an old-fashioned Congressional grilling Thursday at a House Judiciary subcommittee hearing on child sex trafficking -- the expected sequel to months of contentious debate over the classified-ads site's shuttered "adult services" section.

As Cecilia Kang's story in today's paper recaps, the latest chapter of this mess started a week ago when Craigslist -- after months of escalating pressure over its adult content -- removed that section from its site. It did not explain the move, though its placement of a "censored" label over the spot once occupied by "adult services" suggested its views.

The arguments over Craigslist's former acceptance of ads in this category -- unlike the bulk of its free ads, they sold for $10 apiece -- before and after have followed the same patterns.

(Disclaimer: I've used Craigslist to sell things, but I never looked at that category when it was around. I am told that the objectively legal content of the adult-services section included things such as performances by strippers. The less-than-legal content was... use your imagination.)

Craigslist and its defenders note that the San Francisco firm had lawyers screen every ad for illegal content -- and by requiring a credit-card payment, it denied advertisers the easy anonymity provided to other Craigslist users. It also cooperated regularly and promptly with law enforcement.

You can read Craigslist's own defense in posts on its blog and in the prepared Congressional testimony of William Powell, its director of customer service and law enforcement relations.

Microsoft social-media researcher Danah Boyd offered a more compelling version of that view last week, arguing that it was far easier for law enforcement officials to bust the "scumbags" -- her term -- exploiting women on a site like Craigslist. Now, that trade will move to less-ordered, more-anonymous spaces (possibly including Craigslist's own personals sections) that police can't patrol as effectively.

There's also this: U.S. law doesn't hold Web sites liable for content posted by their users, a point Wired's Ryan Singel made well Wednesday.

The argument against Craiglist is a more black-and-white affair: Prostitution is illegal, Craigslist enabled it, and the only ethical response for Craigslist is to get out of that market entirely. And although other sites share the blame, Craigslist -- the biggest classified-ads site in the world -- has to go first.

In this view, Craigslist doesn't get extra credit for operating the rough equivalent of a police department's sting operation on the streets; that is a job for law enforcement, not a for-profit company. Further, opponents of sex trafficking raise an excellent point when they ask why Craigslist hasn't imposed comparable restrictions in other countries, where it doesn't bother with the "adult" euphemism, instead bluntly labeling those categories of services "erotic."

Craigslist's managers ought to answer that question, and many others. But until yesterday's hearing, the company hadn't said a peep about this issue. I don't do PR, but I don't see how not communicating anything amounts to an effective communications strategy. Then again, Craigslist has a history of failing to talk to its own users.

So Craigslist makes a convenient target. But if it's bad for Craigslist to make a buck off people's interest in paying for sex, it's no better for other companies to do the same, even if those other firms hire PR agencies. I trust that all of the politicians who have lined up to denounce Craigslist will be just as aggressive on other companies that have accepted adult or erotic ads now that Craigslist has announced that its adult-services listings are gone for good.

Here, I must note that my employer's history is not spotless. The Post has run ads for local massage parlors that apparently offer a variety of (ahem) value-added services. This is no secret; Gene Weingarten had some sport with the topic in a 2001 column recounting his visit to one such establishment to have a crick in his neck worked out. In 2006, the paper's ombudsman at the time, Deborah Howell, demanded that the paper stop running these ads.

The number of these ads appears to have diminished in recent years, though the fact that local law enforcement shut down the massage parlors in question may have had something to do with that. The Post's PR department declined to comment.

I also have to note that for years, Craigslist has been dismantling the classified-ads business of The Post and other newspapers. But if there's a conspiracy among newspapers to punish Craigslist, nobody bothered to enlist me. No one here has told or asked me to blog about the site's adult-services controversy (that story broke on the Friday night that I was returning from a trip). Meanwhile, Post staffers not only routinely use Craiglist, some of us even link to our own Craigslist ads in posts on our intranet's for-sale message board. As the Facebook saying goes: It's complicated.

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