Advertising site Craigslist takes down adult services content from US servers but ‘erotic’ ads remain in place elsewhere
Campaigners against prostitution and sex trafficking appeared to have won a victory over the weekend when Craigslist, the powerful online advertising website, capitulated to mounting pressure and removed its “adult services” content from US servers.
The move is an important concession in the fierce debate in America between free speech and first amendment advocates and those seeking to clean up the web and protect vulnerable girls and women from exploitation. It follows a sustained campaign by prosecutors across the US to have the sex advertisements removed.
In the absence of comment from Craigslist, it is not clear whether the shift will be permanent. It is also unclear what the concession means for other countries, including the UK, where “erotic” services remained available today. However, the fact that the site’s executives placed a “censored” block over its adult services link in the US suggests that, in word at least, they have not given up the fight.
The sex services portion of the website, previously called its “erotic” section, was criticised as a thinly veiled clearing house for prostitution. It exposed Craigslist to several damaging scandals, the most serious of which was the killing in April last year of Julissa Brisman, a 25-year-old masseuse from New York, in a Boston hotel. Philip Markoff, her alleged murderer, was dubbed the Craigslist killer because he had arranged to meet her through the site. He killed himself in jail last month.
Brandon Petty pleaded guilty last month to sexually attacking with a knife four women who had advertised for sex through Craigslist. He faces up to 45 years in prison.
Also last month, an advert was placed in the Washington Post and another paper under the headline “Dear Craig”, in which two women said they had been forced into prostitution with punters attracted through the website. One of the women said she had been sold by the hour at lorry rest stops while the other said she had been a victim of sex trafficking from the age of 11.
Chief prosecutors from 17 states across the US clubbed together on 24 August to write a joint letter to the website complaining that “ads trafficking children are rampant on it”. They accused the site of profiting from the “suffering of the women and children who continue to be victimised by Craigslist”.
Though Craigslist has faced an intensifying public relations crisis, it is shielded from prosecution by a federal law that protects internet providers from the actions of their users.
According to web advertising monitors AIM group, Craigslist made $45m from its sex ads last year, about a third of its total profits. The website insists it has responded to concerns by introducing in the past year a system of weeding out the most egregious adverts, claiming to have rejected 700,000 items since May 2009.
“Craigslist is committed to being socially responsible, and when it comes to adult services ads, that includes aggressively combating violent crime and human rights violations,” the chief executive, Jim Buckmaster, recently said on his blog.