Commentary: Dear Craigslist, Grow Up

Serra Sippel is not accustomed to receiving large, unsolicited donations in the mail. Nor is she used to sending them back.

That's what happened earlier this summer, however, when Sippel, president of a Washington (D.C.)-based nonprofit women's safety organization called the Center for Health and Gender Equity, received—with little explanation—a $25,000 check from the Craigslist Charitable Fund, a philanthropic arm of the famously nonconformist classified ad website headquartered in San Francisco.

Her organization needed the money, so Sippel spent a weekend studying Craigslist, which helps people buy and sell used products and find jobs, housing, and companionship on more than 700 local sites around the world. Clicking on adult services, she noticed obvious solicitations from prostitutes; browsing through its blog, she came across Chief Executive Officer Jim Buckmaster's testy replies to allegations that the site facilitates sex trafficking. Ultimately, Sippel decided she was uncomfortable keeping the donation. "I just didn't understand why they wouldn't express more concern," Sippel says. "They did the minimum to address the demands of law enforcement, expecting some goodwill. But there was clearly more they could do to fight trafficking."

Does Craigslist care more about its legal rights or its social responsibility as a dominant site with 50 million users in the U.S. alone? After two years of near-constant criticism from state attorneys general, on Sept. 4 the site finally shuttered its controversial adult services. Instead of simply dropping the header, however, Craigslist replaced it with a single word: censored. And then it went silent, refusing to comment on the move.

Adult services had become an uncomfortably profitable business. Craigslist, which started charging for sex ads in 2008 at the behest of law enforcement officials who wanted the company to verify the identities of adult advertisers, was on track to earn $44.4 million from the section in 2010 alone, according to a recent estimate from the AIM Group, which monitors classified advertising. That's almost a third of the company's projected annual revenues of $122 million. The adult revenues have helped make Craigslist a target not just of law enforcement officials but of nonprofits that fight human slavery and child prostitution. "Law enforcement and anti-trafficking experts all agreed that Craigslist, through its adult services section, was the No. 1 platform for buying and selling sex with children and young women online," says Bradley Myles, executive director of the Polaris Project, an anti-trafficking organization.

Under a provision of the 1996 law called the Communications Decency Act, Web companies cannot be held liable for the material users post on their sites. Even so, most popular Internet firms have come to the conclusion that they have a larger ethical responsibility to tame the wild beast that is participatory media. Over the last 15 years, one after another, companies like AOL (TWX), Yahoo! (YHOO), MySpace (NWS), YouTube (GOOG), and Facebook added staff and filtering technology in an effort to monitor their sites, reassure parents, calm advertisers, and position themselves as good corporate citizens. They remove pornography, profanity, and other illicit content from their user-generated forums, quickly eradicating pages designed to attract such material.

Craigslist, with all of 30 employees working in a Victorian house in San Francisco, has taken a different approach. It was never as irresponsible as its critics charged, or as good a corporate citizen as Buckmaster professed to be in his blog postings on the topic. Over the years, Craigslist changed the name of its adult listings from "erotic services," tried asking advertisers to verify their identities with an automated phone system, and added a team of outside lawyers to manually screen ads. Those efforts helped: Buckmaster has pointed out that traffic spiked at alternative media outlets—sites that don't manually screen adult content—after Craigslist began screening. And explicit nude photos next to adult ads largely disappeared from its U.S. pages.

With only a few dozen full-time employees and a category uniquely devoted to adult listings, however, Craigslist can only do so much. Adult advertisers easily sidestepped the protective measures with euphemisms—"100 roses for a half-hour date"—and no one was fooled. "Craigslist did a lot to clean up the ads, but certainly the underlying criminal conduct continued," says Cara Smith, deputy chief of staff for Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan. The company made no changes to its adult categories in more than 200 overseas markets, which are still called "erotic services" and are often replete with pornographic photos accompanying direct come-ons for paid sex.

Craigslist's reluctance to hire more full-time staff and expand its filtering efforts are part of its basic philosophical stance. The company proudly positions itself as noncommercial, preserving the .org suffix in its URL (though it's a for-profit business) and charging only for real estate and job ads in a few select markets. Like another San Francisco Web pioneer, the operator of Wikipedia, Craigslist believes that the Internet enables a new kind of small enterprise to create a global service that delivers a public good by tapping into the power of users who "crowdsource" content.

By becoming mired in a seemingly never-ending legal scrum over adult ads, Craigslist is forcing even Internet true-believers to question that model. "I have concluded over the years that crowd-sourcing isn't enough," says Eric Goldman, director of the High Tech Law Institute at California's Santa Clara University. "There has to be enough of a human presence to make sure sites can deliver on the trust that users want to have in them. It could very well be that Craigslist is just understaffed, and there is no model for it to continue operating at the current level."

The immediate question is whether Craigslist really will leave its adult listings in the U.S. shut down and perhaps extend the move abroad, or whether it intends to reopen adult services and fight for what it perceives as a crucial freedom of speech issue for the Internet. Craigslist executives haven't said anything about their actions or intentions over the past week (and did not respond to a request for comment). They could keep the censored sign, surrendering while thumbing their noses at critics, or reignite the fight by asking a judge to rule that state attorneys general are violating their rights.

Law enforcement officials hope that Craigslist will continue to combat prostitution ads, even as the postings migrate to other categories, such as personals. Yet law enforcement officials concede they have no idea what's coming next. "The silence is baffling," says Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal.

If Craigslist wants to leave the rancor behind, it needs to do more than shut down adult services. It needs to follow its larger, more commercially minded Internet brethren and take responsibility for the content on its site. That would mean hiring more employees, getting more sophisticated in its use of screening tools, and perhaps even doing more to verify the identities of users and advertisers.

Like it or not, the company that styles itself as flamboyantly noncommercial has become incontrovertibly mainstream. Unlike the alternative media outlets it compares itself to, tens of millions of regular people routinely use Craigslist—and may encounter prostitution, and worse, on its pages for the first time. For the rebels at Craigslist, it's time to grow up by clamping down.

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