Craigslist Replaces Adult Services Ads With 'Censored' After Prosecutors Demand a Shutdown

September 7, 2010 by David S. Seltzer

As an Orlando cyber crime criminal defense attorney, I have followed the public controversy over the “adult services” section of craigslist.org with interest. Craigslist is a website that offers free classified ads for low-key purposes such as yard sales, and charges for more professional kinds of advertisements. It has been under high-profile attack for years by certain prosecutors, who claim that Craigslist helps to facilitate prostitution and sex trafficking by allowing posts to an “adult services” section of its site. Craigslist has tried to address this issue by charging a fee for those ads and requiring a screening process involving a working telephone number, but opponents say this is not enough. This culminated in a decision Sept. 3 to shut down that part of its United States sites entirely and replace it with a black bar reading “CENSORED.”

The critics do not claim that Craigslist itself is responsible for the prostitution, but say the site profits from the ads and is not doing enough to sort out prostitution from other “adult services” advertised on the site. Craigslist officials have taken several steps to address this, starting in May of 2009 when they changed the name of “erotic services” to “adult services” and began charging $10 per post. In response to further criticism, they later started screening the advertisements using attorneys and donating their profits -- estimated at a third of their revenue -- to organizations that combat sex trafficking. Of course, it also cooperates with police and prosecutors when they need information from the site.

Nonetheless, 17 attorneys general, their states’ top prosecutors, sent a letter Aug. 24 (PDF) demanding that the Adult Services section be shut down because it does not adequately screen the ads to prevent the exploitation of women and children. Florida’s Bill McCollum was not among the prosecutors. The campaign is headed by Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, who is involved in a heated campaign for that state’s governorship.

Not surprisingly, there is a lot of outrage on both sides of the issue, with Internet freedom advocates noting that Craigslist is just one of many places online and offline where prostitution ads can be found, including free weekly newspapers and even eBay. But as a West Palm Beach cyber crime criminal defense attorney, I would like to discuss this issue from a criminal defense perspective. As the New York Times noted, Craigslist is not legally at fault even if the advertisements do offer prostitution. Craigslist is not itself a “pimp” or accused of being one, and an attempt to prosecute it for allowing advertisements that later led to prostitution arrests was dismissed in South Carolina federal court. And under section 230 of the federal Communications Decency Act, websites cannot be sued for the information their users post, even if they fail to take action to correct problems with posts. Thus, Craigslist is not only not guilty of any crime, but also doing more than is legally required of it to stop prostitution.

Some observers have predicted that Craigslist will probably still have advertisements for prostitution -- they will simply move to other parts of the site. Thus far, no one is reporting that this has actually happened, but there is historical precedent for the idea: Craigslist originally established its Erotic Services section because it wanted to separate those advertisements from its free online personal ads. I suspect that if those advertisements do reappear, Craigslist will continue to be targeted by prosecutors who believe it is a more dangerous forum for prostitution ads than other print and online sources. But as a Miami cyber crime criminal defense attorney, I do not believe that Craigslist or its top officials actually have anything to fear from any future communications from prosecutors -- because it is well established that they are not committing any crime by merely providing a forum.

If you or someone you care about is being prosecuted for a crime in Miami-Dade, Broward, Palm Beach or Orange Counties, or anywhere else in Florida, Seltzer Law & Associates can help. To speak to someone 24 hours a day and 7 days a week and set up a free consultation, call our firm today at 1-888-THE-DEFENSE (1-888-843-3333) or send us a message online.