Out of Control Policy Blog

The Craigslist Prosecution Was Nothing But a Power Play

It’s not my intention to debate the legality of prostitution here, suffice it to say I believe that whatever agreement two consenting adults chose to enter behind closed doors is their own business.

And while prostitution is illegal in most states, I find something discomfiting about the way no less than 40 state attorneys-general joined forces to browbeat Craigslist into policing the ad notices for sensual massages on its site.

To get the states to back off further legal action, Craigslist agreed to replace its “Erotic Services” category with another “Adult Services” category. All postings will have to be reviewed and approved by Craigslist staff.

The legal full court press was sparked by the murder of a 25-year-old masseuse whose killer said he found her listed on Craigslist. While the attorneys-general, led by Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut and Lisa Madigan of Illinois, welcomed Craigslist’s decision, they did not explain how forcing Craigslist to review of all ads offering adult services will prevent another such murder.

The young woman’s murder was a tragedy, but considering that Craigslist generates 20 million page views per month worldwide, along with millions of dollars in transactions, most non-sexual in nature, between satisfied parties, the site can hardly be qualified as an incubator of crime. The problem is that Craigslist exists in a world where bad people do bad things.

As far as the government goes, two factors are at work here. The first is plain old moral panic over another online service that has impacted social behavior. Witness the campaign against social networking sites. Yes, they have attracted sexual predators, and we need both strong corporate policies and well-written laws to protect our children from online danger. But instead of that, legislators have been treating Internet social networking as if it causes predation, which it does not. The fact is predators will go where prey is, whether it is a playground, schoolyard or social networking site.

The second factor is the growing aggressiveness of both the federal and the state governments in seeking to regulate both Internet content and commerce. The last few years has seen a reversal of the conventional wisdom that Internet commerce models should be left alone to play themselves out, with government interference a last resort. That has given way to a new mentality that says regulate, restrict and censor first. As another example, look at Hulu.com. Barely known 12 months ago, the Internet video site is already said to be in the antitrust crosshairs of the Obama administration. Hulu’s business sector hasn’t even matured yet, and already the Feds are ready to declare it an illegal monopoly!

As with Hulu, which raised its brand with a campaign of offbeat ads launched during the Super Bowl, Craigslist’s visibility is its liability. Craigslist isn’t the only site of its kind, just the largest and most recognizable. As such, Craigslist has been a target of activist legislators and bureaucrats for several years. First, it came under fire because the service, by letting users post their own notices, skirted EEOC rules. For example, a landlord could post an add stating black, female, bisexual, vegan, non-smoking tenant was preferred. That was too upsetting for the social engineers in our state houses and town halls. The Seven Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in Craigslist's favor.

That’s why the states’ campaign against Craigslist’s erotic services comes off as a power play. Employing just 28 staffers, Craigslist is no Internet behomoth (eBay holds a 25 percent stake). Craigslist simply was too visible an example of how the Internet can subvert bureaucracies carefully constructed to regulate the lives of citizens. All in all, Craigslist probably provides a much safer environment for sex workers. They can operate independently of procurers, screen their clients and keep the money they make. Craigslist simply was making it too easy to pay for sex and had to be punished. That ads for “erotic services” will move to other categories or to other, less well-known sites, doesn’t matter. The objective of the prosecution was to assert state power over a site that was allowing users to defeat state-erected barriers preventing exercise their freedom of association and freedom of contract.

Consider this: In such lean times, 40 states signed on to the Craigslist investigation and prosecution. As part of the investigation, the Cook County, Ill., sheriff spent $100,000 worth of time and resources scrolling through the site’s sex ads (nice work if you can get it). How much more taxpayer money was and will be spent in a largely symbolic attempt to put a kibosh on online ads for massages with a happy ending? When it comes to Internet, that alone should tell you where the government’s priorities are.


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