Craigslist to crack down on erotic service ads

Attorneys general applaud the move, but some are skeptical. And experts say it won’t have an effect on the wider problem of prostitution.

David Sarno
May 14, 2009

Bowing to public pressure from a nationwide cadre of law enforcement officials, Craigslist said Wednesday that it would shutter the “erotic services” section of its website and pledged to closely vet ads for massages, escorts and other adult services that fall short of prostitution.

Attorneys general credited the San Francisco company with making progress in trying to drive sex-for-sale activity from the online bazaar, where millions of people congregate daily to buy houses and haircuts, sofas and swim lessons.

They said that reducing the number of potentially illegal advertisements on such a popular website would create considerable obstacles for those looking to find or sell prostitution services.

“You’re not going to have the volume of it; you’re not going to have the ease of it,” said Illinois Atty. Gen Lisa Madigan, a leading crusader against the erotic services section. “I think this is going to be an effective strategy.”

Craigslist opened a new section called “adult services” and said its staff would review every listing before posting it. The price of adult ads will double to $10 from $5.

But rather than ease the general problem of prostitution, experts said, the cleaning up of Craigslist could complicate it.

The primary law that the sex trade follows is that of supply and demand, said Lt. Dennis Ballas of the Los Angeles Police Department’s vice squad. Though he lauded Craigslist for its cooperation, Ballas noted that plenty of smaller, more narrowly focused websites for peddling prostitution remained — sites that were further off the beaten path and tougher for law enforcement to monitor.

“If they were to shut it down in its entirety,” he said, referring to prostitution on Craigslist, “we as investigators would have to dig deeper to find those other sites.”

Craigslist Chief Executive Jim Buckmaster said in an interview that the site had come to the decision after carefully weighing input from law enforcement, users, legitimate online businesses and free speech advocates.

“It was a balancing act where we’re trying to respond to feedback to constituencies that we felt were important,” he said. “When you’re talking about attorneys general who are the top legal authority in their respective states, that was feedback that we felt was important to take into account.”

The site stopped accepting erotic services ads and will remove all old listings in a week.

Law enforcement officials have often complained about the ease with which prostitutes and their clients can arrange encounters on the site, which lists free and paid ads for a wide range of services in more than 500 cities worldwide. But officials have stepped up their criticism since the slaying of masseuse Julissa Brisman, whose body was found April 14 in a Boston hotel. Police say the killer found her through a Craigslist ad.

Still, the sheer size and fragmentation of the Internet make the online sex market “virtually uncontrollable,” said Ronald Weitzer, a professor at George Washington University who specializes in research on criminology and prostitution. He said he doubted the new efforts would “make a dent.”

Weitzer worries more about whether the intense spotlight on Craigslist cast by the Boston killing could be distracting attention from deeper harms that haunt the sex trade. “This is a clear case where public policy is being inflamed by this particular incident,” he said.

Most online sex transactions are for what Weitzer calls indoor prostitution, in which workers arrange for customers to meet them at private locations. These are usually set up by phone, e-mail or text message, providing a buffer of time and space that doesn’t exist on sidewalks.

“People are much more likely to be assaulted and robbed and killed on the street,” Weitzer said, so that’s where law enforcement efforts should be concentrated.

For now, though, attorneys general remain focused on Craigslist, which they have come to see as a major artery of illegal sex work.

In November, Craigslist reached a deal with more than 40 states and U.S. territories in which the site agreed to stricter safeguards against illegal activity, including a credit card verification system for posters.

Craigslist has said the number of inappropriate listings decreased 95% after that, but law enforcement officials maintain that the effort fell short. Some remain skeptical.

“They made promises to clean up the site in November of ’08 and they haven’t,” South Carolina Atty. Gen. Henry McMaster said. “Now, they’re saying they’re going to take other measures, and if they’re no more effective than the last ones they took, the effort will be of no consequence.”

He did not back off his recent threat to prosecute Craigslist if South Carolina-focused portions of the site are not cleared of prostitution-related ads by Friday.

Rhode Island Atty. Gen. Patrick C. Lynch said he was grateful to Craigslist for taking affirmative steps, but remained “curious and a bit anxious” about the site’s ability to make the transition.

“What certainly can’t be tolerated is some sort of bait-and-switch,” he said.

Several other attorneys general echoed the note of caution, including Jerry Brown of California.

“This action must be followed up with smart enforcement,” Brown said in a statement, “and the assurance that the site does not again become a cyber hub for teenage prostitution.”

david.sarno@latimes.com

Link to original story on LA Times

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