Craigslist Goes on the Offensive

Last week I wrote that the push by 40 state attorneys-general to force Craigslist to police its own site for ads soliciting prostitution amounted to little more than a political power play.

Tuesday, Craigslist CEO Jim Buckmaster took the offensive, filing a suit against South Carolina AG Henry McMaster, declaring McMaster’s ultimatum to Craigslist amounted to prior restraint. McMaster (I know, the similarity of names makes things a little confusing) ordered Craigslist to the site to take down all listings pertaining to South Carolina that could be used to advertise prostitution or sales of pornography. If not, he vows to prosecute Craigslist for aiding an abetting prostitution.

Buckmaster fired back on his blog:

Interestingly, if you read Mr. McMaster’s ultimatum carefully, you’ll note that the only way to definitively comply with it is to take down the craigslist sites for South Carolina in their entirety. The open architecture of craigslist, quintessential to the value it provides for users, simply does not allow for the absolute prevention of solicitation or pornography, with respect to any of its categories and functions.

Usage of craigslist in South Carolina has exploded over the last two years, with some cities experiencing 2000% growth. South Carolinians clearly value craigslist services, and appreciate finding jobs, housing, automobiles, for sale items, friends, romance, community information, local services, event listings, and just about everything else they need in their everyday lives, all in one place, and all for free.

Mr McMaster has persisted with his threats despite the fact that craigslist:
* is operating in full compliance with all applicable laws
* has earned a reputation for being unusually responsive to requests from law enforcement
* has eliminated its “erotic services” category for all US cities
* has adopted screening measures far stricter than those Mr McMaster himself personally endorsed with his signature just 6 months ago
* has far fewer and far tamer adult service ads than many mainstream print and online venues operating in South Carolina
* has made its representatives available to hear Mr McMaster’s concerns in person
* has politely asked Mr. McMaster to retract and apologize for his unreasonable threats.

McMaster, who is said to be considering a gubernatorial run, brought the complaint after discovering ads apparently soliciting sexual services in the Greenville, S.C. section of the site, ads which Craigslist numbered at a grand total of 10.

Implicit in Buckmaster’s post is a question I myself asking myself more and more in these times of increased government intrusion in business—what is it about successful Internet businesses that makes them a convenient political target? Why does the same government that preaches the potential of the Internet to boost the economy, jobs and general quality of life, (to the point of injecting $7.2 billion of its taxpayers’ money into a broadband stimulus) come down hard on anyone who proves successful delivering this vision?

We need to be encouraging hi-tech entrepreneurs, not criminalizing them.

Update: AG McMaster backed down from his ultimatum yesterday, surrendering while declaring victory.