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Globe Editorial

Craigslist should give up its lucrative ‘adult services’

August 31, 2010

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CRAIGSLIST ASPIRES to be the nation’s bulletin board. It bills itself as a public service. It also draws a lot of revenue from “adult services,’’ which are often a thin mask for prostitution. Many other web sites and publications run such ads. But Craigslist’s unique national status — with more than 400 local US sites and a national brand name — appropriately makes it a bigger target.

Now, state attorney generals from across the country, including Massachusetts’ Martha Coakley, are asking Craigslist to voluntarily take down its adult services section. Coakley has also said that it might be time to revisit the 1996 Communications Decency Act, which prevents sites like Craigslist from being legally liable for user-generated content. Changing the law would be difficult, and raise legitimate concerns about censorship. It would be far better for Craigslist to comply with the AGs’ reasonable request.

Much of the scrutiny of Craigslist stems from the murder of Julissa Brisman by medical student Philip Markoff, who preyed on women who put massage ads on Craigslist. The web service has cooperated with its critics — to a point. The site’s operators say lawyers now vet every adult ad before it goes up, and originally started charging for those ads in 2008 at the behest of state attorneys general, donating the proceeds to charity and collecting traceable financial information along the way.

But in 2009, Craigslist changed the name of the section from “erotic services’’ to “adult services,’’ bumped the price per ad from $5 to $10, and said it would no longer commit to donating the proceeds. The company, which employees 30 people, is now swimming in revenue — it will bring in around $122 million this year, almost a third of that from adult ads.

While Craigslist should be lauded for having in place stronger safeguards than many other websites — and the classifieds sections of some newspapers and magazines — the site is, at the end of the day, profiting off of prostitution. And there’s a reason so many anti-child-exploitation and anti-human-trafficking groups have targeted Craigslist: in its current form the site is an attractive venue for predators to sell women and children against their will.

Craigslist’s own fact sheet refers to its “relatively non-commercial nature’’ and “public service mission,’’ and the site mostly lives up to this: it is a useful free resource for everything from trying to sell used video games to finding a pickup basketball game.

It’s hard to see how prostitution connects to this mission, but it’s easy to see the harm that can be done by the site’s willingness to be used as a conduit for the sex trade. Craigslist should shut down its sleazy online sex shop and instead turn back to the legitimate forms of exchange that made it an Internet juggernaut in the first place.

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