Is Craigslist the victim of a witch-hunt?

In the aftermath of a horrible murder by someone who is now routinely referred to as “the Craigslist killer,” the online classified site has been coming under increasing pressure from both the government — which has been waging a prostitution-related crusade for some time now — and others who see the service as somehow complicit in these kinds of crimes. Venture capitalist and blogger Jeff Nolan, for example, says in a recent post that Craigslist “has a problem” and should find some way to deal with it, and suggests that both founder Craig Newmark and CEO Jim Buckmaster don’t seem to care much, or want to do anything about it.

“Instead of waiting for a community solution to a problem that will only get worse, Newmark and Buckmaster should be taking a leadership position and driving effective change to combat crime taking place on Craigslist.”

Jeff seems like a smart guy, but I couldn’t disagree more with his post. As far as I can tell, Craigslist has been doing everything it can to remove posts that are linked to criminal behaviour, whether prostitution or anything else, and they appear to have bent over backwards to co-operate with the attorneys-general from a number of states when it comes to imposing fines on wrong-doers and other strategies for limiting that kind of behaviour. What more could they possibly do — turn over their server log files to the authorities? Let Craigslist become an arm of the government?

As for the ABC News report, in which Craig and Jim are interviewed by Nightline hack Martin Bashir about the murder and the availability of prostitution ads on the service, Jeff says that CEO Jim Buckmaster comes across as “cold and unsympathetic.” I didn’t see it that way at all. While he’s not the most emotionally demonstrative man, I imagine I would react in much the same business-like way if I was asked for the 500th time why Craigslist allows such content on its service (the answer: it doesn’t, and tries hard to remove it). Bashir does his best to bait Newmark as well, using salacious ads to try and get him to admit he is aiding criminal behaviour.

As I watched the report, I tried to imagine Bashir interviewing Alexander Graham Bell and/or or an AT&T CEO about all the crimes that occur as a result of their invention — the so-called “tele-o-phone.” The reality is that Craigslist does a great job of connecting people who have things to sell with those who wish to buy, and in some cases those connections are going to go awry and a crime will be committed. Not only does Craigslist seem to be doing everything humanly possible to mitigate that (while protecting its community) but to blame the service for those crimes seems absurd. Not that long ago, a bank robber used Craigslist to hire decoys so he could evade capture; are Craig and Jim to blame for that as well?

35 thoughts on “Is Craigslist the victim of a witch-hunt?

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  2. It's bizarre how people and the media tend to latch on the medium as the culprit instead of acknowledging that these crimes occurred before the scary Internet came along. Classified print ads had the same dangers. The Internet makes it easier, and goes beyond a local area, but encounters with strangers, embarrassing photos, ill-advised remarks, etc, all existed before the Internet, yet the story always seems to be about Craigslist/Facebook/Twitter instead of about the guts of the story.

  3. The community is kind of nazi-like about postings, so i'm surprised that, if #'s are true, so many escort ads fronting as prostitution actually make it through?

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  5. Where people are taking issue is that Jim Buckmaster first denied that Craigslist had a “sex related” section. That is either stupidity or an outright lie. A quick search of the Erotic Services section of any city on Craigslist quickly shows otherwise. I agree that Craigslist could not have known, nor should be held legally responsible for crimes committed through the use of their site. On the other hand, if it is well-known by everyone (including the founder and the CEO of CL) that the Erotic Services section is being heavily used to advertise prostitution, why not kill the section?

    Their argument is that the section was created in response to the community tiring of those ads appearing in other areas of the site. Then the problem becomes that the user flagging mechanism is rendered nearly useless, since the only people that will frequent that section are not the people that are likely to flag illicit and thinly veiled ads for illegal activity.

    Essentially, Craigslist is an online community, like a town. If a town allows one section to fall into decay and turns a blind eye while drug deals, prostitution etc, go on, how long before that spills out? Crime thrives where there is no oversight, no light.

    It is great that CL cooperates with law enforcement AFTER a crime has been committed, but what are they doing to ensure that the site is not being used as a vehicle for crime in the first place? What tone are they setting?

    Crime will happen no matter what, that is generally the argument. Yet we have all seen crime rates surge and drop depending on what measures are being taken to clean up crime. Is it really too much to ask Craigslist to at least be honest about what is going on their site in the first place, and then to, yes, take some measures to clean it up?

    • Jennifer, the phone book has a section called Escort Services — but many people know that these services occasionally include more than just companionship. Is that the phone book's fault? And what good does killing the section do?

      Your point about the user-flagging mechanism doesn't really make any sense — you're saying the flagging doesn't happen because no one wants to go into that area, but then you say that Craigslist is like a town, and oversight has to occur. Shouldn't users be helping to provide that oversight if they care about their town?

      • I'm not saying it is craigslist's fault that these ads are posted, or that a crime happened because of it. However, one has to pay to place an ad in the phone book and phone numbers, locations, etc can't easily change. Yes, now CL charges for ES ads, but it was too late. The precedent was set.

        Of course users should help clean up their town, and requesting that the section be closed down is the equivalent of requesting that brothels be closed down rather than the townspeople having to spend their time every day flagging ads.

        • I don;t see what good closing down the section will, frankly. I assume those kinds of ads will just pop up somewhere else.

          • That's just throwing up our hands and saying, “oh well, if we clean up this section of town, it will just crop up somewhere else”.

  6. Where people are taking issue is that Jim Buckmaster first denied that Craigslist had a “sex related” section. That is either stupidity or an outright lie. A quick search of the Erotic Services section of any city on Craigslist quickly shows otherwise. I agree that Craigslist could not have known, nor should be held legally responsible for crimes committed through the use of their site. On the other hand, if it is well-known by everyone (including the founder and the CEO of CL) that the Erotic Services section is being heavily used to advertise prostitution, why not kill the section?

    Their argument is that the section was created in response to the community tiring of those ads appearing in other areas of the site. Then the problem becomes that the user flagging mechanism is rendered nearly useless, since the only people that will frequent that section are not the people that are likely to flag illicit and thinly veiled ads for illegal activity.

    Essentially, Craigslist is an online community, like a town. If a town allows one section to fall into decay and turns a blind eye while drug deals, prostitution etc, go on, how long before that spills out? Crime thrives where there is no oversight, no light.

    It is great that CL cooperates with law enforcement AFTER a crime has been committed, but what are they doing to ensure that the site is not being used as a vehicle for crime in the first place? What tone are they setting?

    Crime will happen no matter what, that is generally the argument. Yet we have all seen crime rates surge and drop depending on what measures are being taken to clean up crime. Is it really too much to ask Craigslist to at least be honest about what is going on their site in the first place, and then to, yes, take some measures to clean it up?

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  8. What I find interesting with this case is that if we were talking about Walmart of Exxon exhibiting behavior that could be defined as profiting from human exploitation there would be no debate whatsoever. Yet go to erotic services on CL any day and it is revealed to be an endless stream of advertisements for what are prostitution services, regardless of whatever semantic hoops the posters jump through, and well CL's position as upstanding community citizen is not questioned. Worse, when the debate is initiated, in this case on ABC, you say Bashir is “baiting Newmark”. It's all the media's fault.

    CL supporters say the company is already aggressively combating postings for illegal services, stolen property, drugs, and cooperating with law enforcement for violent crimes, yet there is no meaningful decrease in the number of postings for said services, and an anecdotal observation is that there is an escalation of violent crimes, therefore Occam's Razor would suggest that CL is either not effective or not interested in being effective at combating ads for illegal services that they are generating a posting fee from.

    After watching the interview with Newmark and Buckmaster I became convinced that these issues are not a priority for them and/or Newmark is interested in a “community solution” because he does not see it as a problem, which probably reflects a position that prostitution should not be a crime in the first place. Debate prostitution all you want but it's still a crime and businesses that willfully enable it are acting as agents.

    As for cooperating with law enforcement, sorry but they don't have a choice on that matter because they are not entitled to any privilege or confidentiality while operating what is most certainly a public service. They can cooperate, be subpoenaed, and ultimately be subject to warrants and seizure of data, which could be massively disruptive to their business. I believe that Newmark and Buckmaster understand the downsides of not cooperating and are acting according, in addition to whatever moral obligation they feel.

    As for Buckmaster, he should be outraged that Craigslist's many positive contributions are being overshadowed by a small number of serious violent crimes and a more general view on sex and property crimes. That outrage should be visible whether being asked about it for the first time or the 10,000th time.

    I appreciate you suggesting I “seem like a smart guy” but in reality I'm just someone with an opinion on this that does not correlate to any ideological position or deification of Newmark. We are challenging businesses to be socially responsible in many ways right now, Craigslist should not get a pass.

    • Thanks for the comment, Jeff, but do you really think Wal-Mart and Exxon are somehow comparable to Craigslist? It's a service that connects buyers with sellers, like the Yellow Pages, or the classifieds in a newspaper. They also have a duty to prove that they are abiding by the law, and not allowing advertising for illegal services, just as Craigslist does — which as far as I can tell it is trying to do. Whether it is trying hard enough is open to debate. You can theorize all you like about Craig or Jim's personal preferences, but they are doing what they can to abide by the law, and there is no compelling evidence to the contrary. Criticizing them for not being outraged enough seems a little disingenuous.

      • It's a service that connects buys with sellers FOR MONEY in these cases. The postings for erotic services are not free so it's entirely appropriate to point out that CL is profiting from human exploitation. Buckmaster knows this and that's why they said they would donate the revenue from some subset of erotic services listings, which suggests they have a pretty good idea of what % of erotic services ads are prostitution, to charity but to be quite frank I can't imagine many groups that would want to take that money. The nonprofit board I am on would certainly not want to touch it, so perhaps a human trafficking victims advocacy group would be the only appropriate recipient of this money. As for Buckmaster himself, it's entirely a style issue and you know as well as anyone that PR is about perception as much as substance. Buckmaster should stay away from the camera, he comes across as entirely lacking in empathy and emotion, which Newmark himself displays quite well despite being monotone while doing it, and that hurts Craiglist's case in the public eye. I really taker issue with anyone suggesting I am being disingenuous by pointing this out, especially considering that you pointed out the same characteristic about Buckmaster. I have no dog in this fight other than finding prostitution in general to be morally reprehensible, I don't have any investments which would be competitive to CL, have great admiration for Newmark himself (I don't know him but many of my friends do, such as my friend Hugh below, who speak highly of him), and lastly, am an avid CL user myself, although not for erotic services 🙂 Yet I firmly believe that this is a problem that is only going to get worse for CL and rot out from the core if they continue on the same path, how can that be disingenuous?

        • Nolan: It is the oldest profession known to man for a reason. Please remove your moral judgments and keep them targeted on your own actions, as I would bet you offend someone's moral fabric in some aspect of what you do daily.

          You do understand that making ES paid listings gives CL the ability police these posts (access to payment credentials), and obviously reduces the number of them made? Why are you so concerned with the brand image of CL and its executives?

          • It's always curious when people defend prostitution by stating it's long standing professional status. Imagine where we would be if slave trading were successfully defended on tenure grounds.

            I do keep my moral perspectives targeted on my own actions but that does not preclude me from commenting on the actions of other entities in the public arena, nor is there any inherent conflict so what's your point? I probably do offend someone's moral fabric and given the fact that I write a public blog, fire away because I can take it… being the big boy that I am a little criticism may sting but is otherwise not fatal.

            Why am I so concerned with this issue… you do understand that this is the kind of issue that I write about? By your logic I suppose a question back to you would be “why are you so concerned about what I write?”.

    • Nolan: How about offering a suggestion instead of, “OMG, CL needs to do something!” The moral outrage expressed here is laughable, and are by definition ideological in nature. I don't see any other way to deal with these issues than what CL is already doing, nor have I seen ONE single suggestion on how to solve it (aside from the seriously stupid notion of removing ES).

      I have to believe there are ulterior motives at play here. Is it any coincidence that CL is responsible for decimating a significant source of revenues for the dead-tree news organizations?

      • 1) aggressively moderate the ES category by adding headcount. There you go, not only does it address the problem but also attacks unemployment.

        2) employ a blacklist of words and word pairs that automatically flag a listing for review before posting. For example, “massage” is what it is but “prostrate massage” is categorically a sex act. When a listing in the ES section includes the word “donation”, flag it for review. It's not that difficult.

        3) the phone verification system CL implemented appears to have a lot of issues (google it) so a rethinking of this system may be in order. I'm not sure what the point of phone verification is anyways, aside from blocking bulk posters.

        Having offered three ideas I think it is now appropriate to point out that it should be up to CL to define the solutions… which was the essence of what I wrote originally.

        No ulterior motives, in fact I write quite frequently about the demise of the newspaper industry and I am neither nostalgic about it nor sympathetic to their plight, believing instead that newspapers have fully earned the pain they are experiencing right now. It would be entirely comical to suggest that I am writing about CL because of what they have done to newspapers; if you take the time to read my newspaper industry commentary you will quickly realize that.

          • I don't know because they haven't been very transparent about what they are doing beyond “listening to the community” and the aforementioned voice verification system (which apparently doesn't work with VoIP). If they are doing more they should be speaking up about it, IMO. Nobody will fault them for providing too much information or taking more aggressive steps to counter this problem.

  9. I suspect the problem is that, while Craig and colleagues disapprove of–and try to combat–illegal activity on Craigslist, they do approve of activity that offends prudish sensibilities, such as facilitating casual sex for strangers or matchmaking people who want to exchange unusual “erotic services”. I imagine that their personal views lean more libertarian than those of average Americans, and perhaps even than what the law allows. But they are complying with the law, and that is what counts, at least in court. Probably not what counts on TV.

  10. The problem with CraigsList is not so much “protecting the community” but that the “community” runs the shop. What will be interesting to see, is whether the legal community will be able to eventually pierce the CraigList vail and defense based on “community policing”. In other words, now if you run afoul of CraigList rules, your listings are summarily banished without any recourse. The community self appointed police maintain that participants have “voluntarily” agreed to this since, since they must agree to its bylaws before participating. Eventually, it will be interesting to if the Craiglist “community police” mechanism will survive, as Craiglist keeps gaining every greater market power in given local markets (see what is happening to your local newspaper's classified section)!

  11. Amen, Brother. I met Craig N. in SF in 2007. A TOTALLY decent, humble, smart, upright guy. A man totally motivated by “Good”. This whole story makes me weep….

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  13. My opinion is that Craig came up with an amazing website that works. He should not have to explain crimes or acts of stupidity of other people just because his website was used by them. America today wants to point fingers at anybody and anything that anything perceived as good can be made bad/evil. If you are 14 years or older, you should have a good idea what is right and wrong, and from then on if you choose to break the 1,000,000 laws we have then prepare to pay the consequences by yourself.

  14. Follow the money. Obviously, the tail dragging this has done in the public sector is making the value of Ebay's Craigslist stock and the founders stock worth less than before.

    Will Ebay make a bid for the whole company or is it better this way so Ebay will be forced to keep their stock on this rainy day?

    That is the mucho billion dollar question.

    Something doesnt feel quite right- there is money to be made and each set of sharks are circling.

  15. Follow the money. Obviously, the tail dragging this has done in the public sector is making the value of Ebay's Craigslist stock and the founders stock worth less than before.

    Will Ebay make a bid for the whole company or is it better this way so Ebay will be forced to keep their stock on this rainy day?

    That is the mucho billion dollar question.

    Something doesnt feel quite right- there is money to be made and each set of sharks are circling.

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