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Saturday, September 4th, 2010 at 6:09:33pm UTC 

  1. A few minutes ago I went on craigslist, and saw that they've removed the "adult services" section. For those of you unfamiliar with craiglist, the adult services section caters mainly to sex workers and those who seek them. On any given night, you can find dozens of new postings in every major city. Unsurprisingly, craigslist has caused some major waves in the way the sex industry operates.
  2.  
  3. Enough waves to attract the attention of the government. Seventeen state Attorney Generals have demanded that craigslist remove the "adult services" section, threatening litigation. Responding to the pressure, craigslist has instituted a number of reforms in recent months, including screening postings before they're listed and working with law enforcement to crack down on human trafficking and the exploitation of minors.
  4.  
  5. Yet, this was deemed to be not enough of a change. As I understand it, a few hours ago craigslist finally bowed to legal pressure, and removed the "adult services" section from the website.
  6.  
  7. I don't believe in prostitution. I find it morally objectionable, and personally repugnant. I don't believe in its legalization, and think it is responsible for no small number of social ills.
  8.  
  9. But forcing craigslist to abandon its adult services section was a grave mistake. This is a perfect example of bad policy -- ill conceived, shortsighted, and destined to cause exponentially more problems than it will solve.
  10.  
  11. The first major problem with this policy is that it eliminates a controlled environment for sex workers to operate within. In this environment, craigslist acts as a sort of passive mediator between sex workers, clients, and law enforcement.
  12.  
  13. Because of craigslist, sex workers don't need a pimp controlling them to conduct business; they can log onto the adult services section independently and work without threat of violence if they don't make enough money. They don't need to work the streets anymore, where they posed a nuisance, soliciting clients near our families and businesses, creating a lawless environment in our neighborhoods.
  14.  
  15. It’s often difficult for law enforcement to find men who have assaulted or abused sex workers. Unless the sex worker was able to get a good view of the car or driver on the dark streets, or was fortunate enough to catch a license plate number, it can be hard to find and prosecute their abusers. But when users respond on craigslist, a record is kept of communications between the sex worker and the client. E-mails sent back and forth to make the arrangement can contain valuable information such as a client’s name, IP address, even location. In conjunction with law enforcement, craigslist can help find those guilty of assaulting sex workers and bring them to justice.
  16.  
  17. Law enforcement has other reasons to work with craigslist. Craigslist has no tolerance for human trafficking and prostitution by minors, and encourages users to report any suspicions of either. By keeping a record of posters, including their credit card information, law enforcement has a means to trace criminals who engage in human traffacking.
  18.  
  19. In the coming days, analysts will poke and prod at this issue, and some will advance the argument that the adult services section allowed minors and sex slaves to be marketed to  craigslist users. This is true. But make no mistake about it -- the thugs responsible for these atrocious acts will not be deterred by the shuttering of one page on one website.There's no shortage of other places to find sex workers online. Perhaps those sites won't keep track of important information on posters, such as credit card information. Maybe they won't even be cooperative with law enforcement.
  20.  
  21. Some may believe that we can keep track of sites that facilitate prostitution, and shut them down one by one. This will not work. In 2001, the recording industry forced Napster to shut down, citing the illegal file sharing on its networks. Within weeks, dozens of alternatives had popped up in its place, forcing the industry to play an expensive game of cat-and-mouse which it would eventually lose. Not to mention the fact that the our government only has jurisdiction over sites based in the U.S.; even if a widespread crackdown were somehow miraculously effective, sex workers would simply move to sites located overseas.
  22.  
  23. A site like craigslist, that stores identifying information about its users, can play a vital role in finding and prosecuting criminals. By shutting down this section, law enforcement has lost an important ally in the fight against human trafficking.
  24.  
  25. Craigslist's role in the sex industry is passive, not active. It does not hire prostitutes or take a cut of their profits. It simply creates an environment for "adult services", which encompasses everything from erotic massage to lap dances, from strippers to sex workers. User can choose to offer any number of legal or illegal services, which craigslist is, for the most part, indifferent to -- it just hosts the forum. One question that people have been asking over the past few months is, to what degree is craigslist culpable for the actions of its users?
  26.  
  27. This is a tough question, and I am not a lawyer. Rather than answer it definitively, which I cannot, I'll pose some questions of my own. To what degree is the phone company culpable for the actions of its users? Is the phone company liable if a hit job is contracted over the phone? Or if a sex worker uses a phone to communicate with clients, is the phone company liable then?
  28.  
  29. Ma Bell is mostly indifferent to what you do on its phone lines -- it simply created a service in which people can freely communicate with each other. If law enforcement needs to tap a phone or obtain records about a user, the phone company often cooperates, which in some cases it ought to. The same is true about craigslist. craigslist has always cooperated with the investigations of law enforcement, has worked with 40 Attorney Generals and the NCMEC to crack down on trafficking and child exploitation. The site has even been used by the police to conduct sting operations. If craigslist is liable because it provides a service in which sex workers and clients can communicate, the phone company is liable too.
  30.  
  31. Or maybe it's not that simple. Maybe craigslist is liable because it created a section for "adult services". Everyone knows that users can find sex workers in the adult services section; the title is a shallow concession -- a wink and a nod. If that's the case, are not the yellow pages and local newspapers liable for having sections that promote "escorts", businesses of questionable legality that often explicitly offer time with sex workers?
  32.  
  33. The fact of the matter is, the titles of these sections are absolutely meaningless. Whether the section is called "Adult Services", "Erotic Services" or "No Sex Ads Here" is irrelevant. The same number of people are going to post, and the same number of potential clients are going to be looking for those posts. Removing one section from craigslist will have  no effect on how easy it is to find a sex worker, it just makes it harder to for law enforcement to get identifying information about them, and prevents craigslist from screening their posts.
  34.  
  35. Just now I clicked over to craigslist and took a look at the categories it offered. I was thinking about where sex workers were posting now that the "adult services" section was closed. My first thought was "beauty services". I clicked over -- it was full of ads from sex workers. My second thought was the "therapeutic section". I clicked -- every single ad on the page was from a sex worker. My next guess was "casual encounters". You guessed it -- the page was full of ads from sex workers. In the two hours since craigslist closed down "adult services", sex workers have moved onto several alternative sections, and as a user, I found them in less than ten seconds.
  36.  
  37. Does closing "Adult Services" really make a difference in curbing prostitution?
  38.  
  39. Some people, unacquainted with craigslist, think that I'm missing the point entirely. Why not just remove all posts that are explicit ads for sex workers, they might argue. This is the point of view of South Carolina Attorney General Henry McMaster. McMaster argues that closing or renaming a section, or setting up mechanisms to curb prostitution is not enough. He claims that craigslist must specifically remove any advertisements for prostitution on its site, and he opened a criminal investigation when craigslist failed to do so.
  40.  
  41. The problem with this logic is that it simply isn't technologically feasible. craigslist users post 50 million posts every month. That's 20 posts a second, coming through a company that has only 30 employees. craigslist relies on a flagging system to remove illegal posts; if enough users in the community give the system a heads up that something is awry, craigslist automatically removes the post. The only way to crack down on these postings is to encourage the community to flag more listings.
  42.  
  43. And that's besides the point. If craigslist was really forced to find and remove illegal listings, imagine the problems that would cause for just about every social networking site. What if sex workers moved to twitter, and created hashtags that read "#Sex in 845" or "#Prostitutes in NYC" to find potential clients. What if they harnessed the mighty networking power of Facebook, creating throwaway accounts and spamming male users with solicitations? Would not all social networking sites need a complex, expensive apparatus to deal with the rigorous task of screening every post, every update, every piece of text on any webpage? And would that not have a chilling effect on both speech and technological progress? How many startups would be deterred by not having the means to comply with government orders to find and remove illegal content?
  44.  
  45. And what if they prevail?
  46.  
  47. Is this system, this "adult services" section not preferable to the alternative? Is it not better to have sex workers operate in a small, adults-only corner of a website than on the streets of our neighborhoods? Wouldn't we rather have these advertisements on a webpage that only people searching for these services will access, than splattered across the pages of our newspapers, magazines and phonebooks, where they're in easy reach of children?
  48.  
  49. This bold, unprecedented measure has the potential to change how internet companies operate forever. What will happen, now that the government is arguing that companies are responsible for the actions of each and every one of their millions of users? Which site will be next? Where do we draw the line between making a stand against prostitution and engaging in outright censorship?
  50.  
  51. The government has shown its hand. They believe that they can effectively police the internet. They believe that the servers and computers, the broadband and telephone lines that connect billions of users across the world, can be policed like a city block.
  52.  
  53. The problem is, they're wrong.

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