THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Craigslist not the only online site for sex ads

Others still offer venue for listings

By Megan Woolhouse
Globe Staff / September 8, 2010

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Craigslist’s newly implemented ban on advertisements for adult services does not mean such online classifieds have vanished from the Internet.

Many sites, including Backpage.com, owned by Village Voice Media, and the online version of The Boston Phoenix, continue to feature ads that appear to promise sex for money.

Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley has said she plans to hold public hearings on how to address the issue, but Internet specialists say it will be difficult for law enforcement officials to curb illegal activities online.

“There’s going to be a game of Whac-a-Mole to try to achieve this goal through censorship — information will keep popping up online,’’ said John Palfrey, codirector of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School. “Strategically, you have to go to the root causes, and not just focus on the intermediaries, like the Phoenix or Craigslist, but directly on the wrongdoers.’’

Last week, the popular classified website Craigslist replaced its link to adult services ads with a black bar marked “censored,’’ but offered no explanation for the move. The company did not immediately respond to a request for comment yesterday.

Palfrey and others said the change appeared to be the result of pressure from 17 attorneys general, including Coakley, who last month sent a letter to the company asking it to close its adult section.

Yesterday, four anti-child-trafficking groups — the Polaris Project, the Rebecca Project for Human Rights, the FAIR Fund, and Courtney’s House — said adult pages remain active on Craigslist’s non-US Web pages.

Coakley, in a statement yesterday, said websites are “immune from liability’’ under federal law.

“That means that they do not have the same incentive or responsibility to police themselves nor are they held accountable for the ads on their site,’’ she said. Hearings on what to do about online sex ads will help “determine how we can best protect the public moving forward.’’

Backpage.com’s ads yesterday included one from Nikki, who offered “sessions guaranteed to blow your mind,’’ while The Boston Phoenix site featured “Young & Sweet Asian girls’’ in the Braintree area who offer massages and shampoos by appointment.

Village Voice Media, which owns the Village Voice in New York and 13 other publications, operates the site out of its Phoenix, Ariz., office. It did not immediately return phone calls yesterday.

Peter Kadzis, editor of The Boston Phoenix, said he had not recently viewed the weekly’s classifieds online, but characterized any solicitation as a “victimless crime.’’ The effort to stop erotic ads on Craigslist, he said, has been “an election-year sideshow run by attorneys general running for reelection.’’

“We believe strongly in our First Amendment protection to run escort ads,’’ he said. “If there’s prostitution online, that’s for the police to deal with.’’

Law enforcement officials have identified Craigslist as one of the nation’s largest purveyors of illegal services, including child trafficking. Calls to crack down on such advertising intensified after the slaying of 25-year-old Julissa Brisman in a Boston hotel room, allegedly by Philip Markoff after he responded to an ad she had posted on the website. Markoff last month committed suicide in his cell at Nashua Street Jail, where he was awaiting trial.

Although The Boston Globe has long prohibited advertisements for adult services in print or online, some ads for escorts recently inadvertently appeared on the newspaper’s website, Boston.com.

Globe spokesman Robert Powers said a third-party licensee allowed them to be published because the term “escort services’’ was not properly blocked as a category. As soon as the Globe became aware of the problem, Powers said, it took down the directory, which will remain disabled for “a few weeks’’ while new filtering software is installed.

Jeff Lawrence, publisher of the Weekly Dig, a Boston-based publication, said he stopped accepting sex-for-sale ads in 2006. Prostitutes and pimps frequently came to the paper’s offices, Lawrence said, paying in cash for classified ads. The decision cost the Weekly Dig “hundreds of thousands of dollars’’ a year in revenue, he said.

“I’m not going to get on a soapbox and tell Craigslist or the Phoenix not to do this,’’ Lawrence said. “But you have to be an idiot to say these are not prostitution ads and that they are not being placed by women who are being pimped or underage.’’

Material from Globe wire services was used in this report. Megan Woolhouse can be reached at mwoolhouse@globe.com.