After years of mounting public pressure, Craigslist appears to have surrendered a battle over sexual ads on its website that some viewed as a test case for the boundaries of online freedom.
The popular San Francisco classifieds site removed its controversial adult services section late Friday, defiantly replacing the link with the word "censored." The move followed a torrent of legal threats and negative media reports that highlighted ads within the category that promoted prostitution and child trafficking, or led to violence against women.
The harshest critics have called Craigslist an "online pimp" and the "Wal-Mart of online sex trafficking." Last year, an Illinois sheriff filed a lawsuit that accused the site's owners of knowingly promoting and facilitating prostitution, while the South Carolina Attorney General threatened criminal action against the company.
Late last month, attorneys general in 18 states demanded the removal of the site's adult category, saying the company wasn't doing enough to block ads for illicit services. Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Hillsborough, set up a House Judiciary Committee hearing for later this month to explore how sites like Craigslist are being used to "facilitate criminal activity."
Speier initially applauded the removal of the adult category in a statement on Saturday.
"Craigslist's decision demonstrates a commitment to seeing these horrific abuses end, and I commend them for taking this step," she said.
About a half hour later, however, her office issued a revised statement with a far different tone. "The site is down but not forgotten," the statement said. "We can't forget the victims, we can't rest easy. Child sex trafficking continues and lawmakers need to fight future machinations of Internet-driven sites that peddle children."
No explanation for move
Craigslist executives didn't immediately respond to inquires Saturday, so it was unclear why they made the decision at this point. For that matter, it's possible the company is attempting to make a point with the "censored" label and plans to flip the section back on.
In an interview with The Chronicle late last month, the company's chief executive, Jim Buckmaster, was steadfast in his stance that removing the adult section wouldn't address the underlying issue.
"Is moving advertising around our best hope for addressing these harms?" he said. "Then the ads fall under personals, and how long before the demand is that we shut down personals? And where do those ads go next? What other sections of our site would they like us to shut down?"
Some outside observers also questioned the wisdom of removing the adult services category, and the legal basis for compelling Craigslist to do so.
Web publishers are generally protected by the Digital Millennium Copyright Act and Communications Decency Act from the illegal actions of third parties who use their sites, though there are narrow exceptions in the latter law when it comes to criminal statutes.
"The legal analysis hasn't changed," said Matt Zimmerman, senior staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation. "Craigslist isn't legally culpable for these posts, but the public pressure has increased and Craigslist is a small company. My guess is that they may have just decided that the public pressure was too big."
Fear of chilling effect
The broader concern is that making publishers responsible for the behavior of their users, whether through new laws or legal threats, will force them to adopt more conservative standards over what's allowed on their sites. That could have a chilling effect on online expression, said Brian Carver, an attorney and assistant professor at the School of Information at UC Berkeley.
"If you impose liability on Craigslist, YouTube and Facebook for anything their users do, then they're not going to take chances," he said in an earlier interview. "It would likely result in the takedown of what might otherwise be perfectly legitimate free expression."
Zimmerman added that any migration of ads for illicit services to other parts of Craigslist, like the personals section, would potentially make them that much more difficult to monitor and catch.
The Associated Press reported Saturday that Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, one of the attorneys general who pressed for the change, said he welcomed the removal of the adult section and was trying to verify Craigslist's official policy going forward.
Attempts at screening
Buckmaster said that Craigslist already does far more than other websites and many print publications to monitor and filter out ads for illegal services.
In late 2008, with the attorneys general from more than 40 states demanding changes, Craigslist began requiring posters to provide a working phone number, a small per-ad fee and credit card verification to encourage compliance with the site's guidelines. Since spring 2009, the company has manually screened the images and texts of every ad submitted to its adult section before it is published. Any that indicate the involvement of an underage person are reported to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, Buckmaster said.
But suggestive posts have still managed to slip through to the site, like massage ads featuring photos of women in their underwear, providing an opening for continued criticism.
Until the brouhaha over adult ads, Craigslist was mainly known as the small, quirky company that got the best of far bigger rivals by focusing on the needs of its users rather than profits. Buckmaster called the widespread suggestion that the company is profiteering from prostitution ads "galling," and used recent blog entries to hit back at certain critics and journalists in a tone that revealed palpable frustration.
The Rebecca Project for Human Rights of Washington, D.C., has been one of the most vocal critics of the adult services section, placing ads in major newspapers, including The Chronicle, calling for its removal.
Executive Director Malika Saada Saar said she was encouraged that the company listened, but then went on to echo Buckmaster's trepidation about what will happen next.
"I would hope that there is that commitment ... to implement a more comprehensive screening process," she said. "My fear is that the ads will migrate to the 'casual encounters' section and pimps and traffickers can sell children without even having to pay for that ad."