Sunday, September 5, 2010

Has Online Prostitution Ended in DC?

Online prostitution has come to an end in the District of Columbia and in the surrounding suburbs. Mostly. Probably. Possibly.

Bowing to pressure from seventeen state attorneys general and being accused of helping promote not just prostitution, but child prostitution, Craigslist has removed its adult services section, replacing it with the word "censored."  The photo to the right is what Craigslist in DC looks like.

To say that Craigslist's adult services listings were controversial is an understatement.  Such a small space in cyberspace doesn't get more complicated and acrimonious. There's the unequivocal certainty that Craigslist has the legal right to offer adult services advertising. There's also the strange idea that because these state attorneys general couldn't take legal action against Craigslist, they worked to shame it into compliance, something that we don't necessarily want officers of the court to do.

Adult services advertising brought in a lot of money to Craigslist, though the exact amount is unknown, because Craigslist is a privately held company. And Craigslist has been a vehicle for child pornography and murder.

I've had the good fortune to talk with Craig Newmark, Craigslist's founder, who is is one of the most caring people I've ever encountered. He went out of his way to help me when I was having a problem with Craigslist. (Craig Newmark no longer runs the company, it should be noted.)

What should Craigslist do? Or rather what should they have done? How do we decide the conflict between ethics and freedom of speech? Does adult services advertising harm women and children? Will barring adult services advertising on Craigslist make a difference when it comes to stopping illegal prostitution? (All sorts of things, some really crazy, have been tried to stop prostitution, such as making it illegal to carry three or more condoms in a "prostitution free zone" in the District of Columbia.) Regardless of the answers to these questions, seeing "censored" on Craigslist is a reminder of fragile freedom of speech is.

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