Craigslist, the giant classified ad website, has antagonized the authorities over the ads in its adult section. Recently the sheriff in Cook County, Illinois called the site the “largest source of prostitution in America,” and filed a civil lawsuit to get Craigslist’s “erotic services” section shut down.
Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart announces at a news conference that he has filed suit, accusing the site of knowingly promoting and facilitating prostitution.
Dart said: “They’ve actually catered their site so it facilitates (prostitution), where you can actually and more specifically and quickly get to what you want.” He continued: “How is that different than somebody who’s aggressively and actively working with a pimp to try to get the word out about the women working for him?”
Craigslist, in a blog post by chief executive Jim Buckmaster, said that it doesn’t tolerate illegal activity on the site and has taken steps to stop it.
While the company thinks the latest complaint is “not well founded in law,” he writes, “we still very much appreciate and commend the good work of Sheriff Dart’s department, and will continue to provide any and all assistance whenever we are called upon to help in their efforts to protect and serve the people of Cook County.”
Responding to government complaints last fall, Craigslist agreed to crack down on ads posted by prostitutes, by requiring posters of erotic-services ads to give a working phone number and pay a fee with a valid credit card. (The adult ads, like most others on the site, were previously free.)
Does the sheriff’s suit have a legal leg to stand on?
Electronic Frontier Foundation senior staff attorney Matt Zimmerman doesn’t think so. “I would be surprised if it went very far,” he said today. Aside from Craigslist already cooperating with authorities, a federal court has already ruled that Websites are immune to liability for what a third party posts, so long as the site doesn’t directly help create that content. And if it ever got that far, constitutional freedom of speech protections likely also apply to Craiglist, he said.
He makes a practical point, too: Shutting down erotic ads on Craigslist probably wouldn’t make prostitution go away. “But wouldn’t one rather have a centralized location where people are posting information about illegal activity,” he asked. Such a database could make the sheriff’s job “a little easier.”
But all of that begs the question: Why does Craigslist have an “erotic services” section in the first place? As anybody who has ever picked up the classifieds section of a local newspaper has noticed, these sorts of ads can be a great source of income.
Craigslist has a more philosophical answer: Users asked for it, so that potentially objectionable ads wouldn’t be mixed in with the ordinary personals. The company says it isn’t interested in the money from erotic ads — it donates 100% of net revenue from “erotic services” ads to charities. (info from The Wall Street Journal)