Columnist: Sex crimes harder to solve, thanks to AGs
NEW YORK (Legal Newsline) - Craigslist's elimination of its classified sex ads will make it harder for law enforcement to investigate crimes of prostitution and child trafficking -- which officials say the website enabled -- argues one national magazine columnist.
The popular online classifieds website shut down its adult services section in response to a push by 17 state attorneys general.
In a letter sent to Craigslist CEO Jim Buckmaster and founder Craig Newmark late last month, Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal mentions a growing amount of advertisements that are featured on the site.
"The increasingly sharp public criticism of Craigslist's Adult Services section reflects a growing recognition that ads for prostitution-including ads trafficking children-are rampant on it," Blumenthal said in the letter.
"In our view, the company should take immediate action to end the misery for the women and children who may be exploited and victimized by these ads."
In a recent science and technology column for The Atlantic, reporter Benjamin Popper wrote that the attorneys general had emphasized the significant profits that Craigslist's ads have generated.
"But the truth is that Craigslist wouldn't be making all that money from such transactions if not for earlier interference by this same group of crusading moralists," he wrote in his Wednesday column.
Popper noted that Craigslist only began charging for its sex ads in November 2008 in response to pressure from Blumenthal and "an earlier coalition of AGs." Prior to that, there had been no fee for posting in the adult services section.
"The idea was that a fee would entail a credit card, leaving a financial trail for law enforcement to follow in pursuing suspicious postings," he wrote.
In November 2008, Blumenthal himself pointed out that, "requiring phone numbers, credit cards and identifying details will provide a roadmap to prostitutes and sex traffickers -- so we can track them down and lock them up. Information is a powerful disincentive and disinfectant to purveyors of illegal sex."
But now -- as Popper points out in his column -- those same fees are being used to "demonize" Craigslist.
Popper goes to say, "Shutting the site down won't end these crimes; it will simply make it harder for law enforcement to investigate them."
He admits many of the activities conducted on the website do, indeed, constitute horrific crimes. "But shutting down a part of the site won't help to end these problems," he says.
He writes, "While the attorneys general have singled out Craigslist as a villain, the exact same type of advertising runs in nearly equal volume on sites like eBay's backpages.com and in alternative newspapers in cities around the country. Hundreds of smaller classified sites also exist, some based outside the United States."
And many of those sites, Popper says, don't require the same amount of detail from posters that Craigslist does -- nor do they engage in the same amount of human screening on ads, or implement software to streamline the work of law enforcement, as Craigslist does.
Popper notes short of "shutting off the entire web," it's impossible to prevent this sort of thing altogether.
However, Craigslist, with its large collection of credit card data and telephone numbers, could at least help federal law enforcement to connect the dots across state lines, The Atlantic reporter says.
He suggests -- to address critics' concerns -- that the website devote "a substantial amount" of its adult services revenue to combating the illegal sex trade on its site.
"In doing so, it must be transparent about how it's spending the money and should find a partner in law enforcement who can put a public face on their activity," Popper concludes.
From Legal Newsline: Reach Jessica Karmasek by e-mail at email@example.com.