Thursday, May 14, 2009

Craigslist bows to states' pressure, axes "Erotic Services"

This week Craigslist announced that, pursuant to a deal with several state attorneys general, it will be eliminating its "Erotic Services" section. The news media have framed the pressure on Craigslist as a response to recent crimes against people who used the site. Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, who spearheaded the effort, has pitched his campaign alternately as aimed at preventing trafficking and child exploitation, and as a plain morals campaign against "pornography, nudity, and open offers of sex for money." Craigslist initially vowed to require posters on Erotic Services to enter credit card information, but the state officials wouldn't settle for that, so the site is no replacing the section with a new "Adult" section, in which each post will be pre-screened by Craigslist employees.

A coalition of organizations advocating for sex workers released this statement:

With Craigslist’s recent announcement that its Erotic Services category will be discontinued within the week, hundreds of thousands of erotic service providers will become more vulnerable to dangerous predators. Eliminating erotic listings as Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal and others propose will only drive us further underground.

Policing the masseuses, phone workers, pro-dominants, and escorts using Craigslist fails to protect those of us who are coerced into the sex industry. Preventing the use of Craigslist advertisements also eliminates the advantage of screening clients online, which makes for a safer work experience by filtering out potentially dangerous individuals. Furthermore, keeping us offline hinders police investigations of violent crime. In the Boston murder of Julissa Brisman, it was online tracking that enabled the police to identify the suspect. One has to wonder: are the Attorneys General examining the evidence or simply enforcing their moral values?

“Removing the erotic services category from Craigslist does not help prevent violence against escorts and other sex workers. It only pushes me and people like me out of the places where advertising is available,” said Jessica Bloom, a sex worker from Sex Workers Action New York (SWANK). In the face of increasing criminalization, we insist upon respect. As mothers, daughters, brothers, and members of your community, we claim that sex work is real work, work that we are entitled to conduct in safety. As such, we must be accorded the human right of full protection under the law.
Sex work activist Miss Calico has this to say about the move:

It’s true that Craigslist is a major advertising venue, for prostitutes but also sex workers of all kinds: the largest in the nation. Its loss will have a distinct effect on the people who use it. Here’s how it works: we advertise to attract the clients we want, and screen to eliminate the clients we don’t, but the number of clients we need stays the same. Anything that hurts our methods of attracting clients, like the shutdown of Erotic Services, will affect how stringent our screening can afford to be. It’s pretty clear to me that Craigslist has just made its sex workers more marginalized and more at risk.

Now, Craigslist has no responsibility to provide an advertising venue. But if Attorney General Richard Blumenthal is trying to make sex workers safer, he’s going about it all wrong. He doesn’t need to protect us from ourselves, or from our clients. He needs to protect us from criminals.

At the Sex 2.0 conference this past weekend, Melissa Gira analogized the panic over Craigslist to New York City's "cleanup" of Times Square. Both spaces came to represent the threat of sexual corruption encroaching on "normal," "decent" places. Targeting these spaces allowed politicians to simultaneously appear to be both protecting moral purity and addressing real social problems of crime, etc., without really addressing those problems at all. As Miss Calico points out, sex work isn't going away, and the short term effects of driving online sex work advertising "underground" -- at least until some other site replicates the efficiency, anonymity and ubiquity of Craigslist -- could be harmful both for sex workers and for law enforcement.

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As a side note, none of the news reports or press releases indicate what kind of legal claims the state governments might have had against Craigslist. I've previously mentioned the question of federal immunity under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act with regard to a still-pending public-nuisance suit targeting "Erotic Services." The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals recently held, in an egegrious case of revenge porn, that Yahoo! might have lost its 230 immunity only because its staff specifically promised the plaintiff to take the offending material down.

UPDATE:
Here's some further analysis of Craigslist's likely legal defense under CDA from the Electronic Frontier Foundation. (More, too, from the Citizens Media Law Project which notes the site's previous efforts to ensure Erotic Services isn't use to exploit children.) Of course, settlements like this are based not only on likelihood of success but on business decisions about public relations and litigation costs. They have previously won litigation over discriminatory preferences in their housing ads, but that doesn't mean they're eager to go through the process again. Ditching Erotic Services was clearly more desirable for Craigslist than fighting several state governments in court and in the media.

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