Craigslist told Congress Wednesday that it had permanently terminated its Adult Services section in response to criticism that it was facilitating child exploitation and prostitution. And it was criticized by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, a group with whom it had worked, which characterized the shutdown as “progress” and said the classifieds site hadn’t provided it many leads.
In written testimony (.pdf), Clint Powell, Craigslist’s head of customer service and law enforcement initiatives, listed a number of actions the company had taken to weed out and deter ads. They required people who took out Adult Services ads to provide a working phone number and valid credit card information, he said. The company also manually screened all ads in Adult Services and reported abuses to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
As for members of Congress, they made it clear they were happy that Craigslist shuttered its services, and wondered if there wasn’t a way to pass a law to criminalize running an online classifieds service, given that the current federal law protects online services from civil liability for what users post online.
“If there is no law on the books, is there any law we could put on the books that would pass constitutional muster,” asked Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Virginia), who as chairman of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security presided over the meeting.
Texas Democrat Sheila Jackson Lee said that as a progressive and a backer of the First Amendment, she was in a philosophical dilemma about sites like Craigslist that allow prostitution ads, adding, “My position is, ‘Shut them down.’”
Since Craigslist’s Adult Services section was shut down Sept. 3, Powell said, ads that used to show up there have migrated to other sites online which, he asserted, may create a law enforcement nightmare.
“Those who formerly posted adult-services ads on Craigslist will now advertise at countless other venues,” Powell wrote. “It is our sincere hope that law enforcement and advocacy groups will find helpful partners there.”
In separate written testimony, Craigslist’s outside attorney Elizabeth McDougall (.pdf) said Craigslist is using “proprietary” technical measures to push adult-services ads off its site to other online ad sites. “Migration of the relatively small percentage of total U.S. adult-services advertising that had been posted on Craigslist to less socially responsible venues uninterested in best practices is an unfortunate step backward in the fight against trafficking and exploitation,” McDougall wrote.
And she echoed Powell’s “Good luck with that” testimony.
“In Craigslist, law enforcement and NGO advocates had a highly responsive partner that listened to and was willing to meet with all concerned parties, and worked collaboratively to develop and implement best practices for minimizing such harms in the context of adult-services advertising,” wrote McDougall. “As a legal counselor with a strong personal interest in combating human trafficking and child exploitation, it has been my sincere privilege to assist this exceptionally conscientious company, and it is sadly dismaying to see Craigslist’s good deeds in this regard be unduly punished.”
But in his testimony, National Center for Missing and Exploited Children CEO Ernie Allen applauded the closing of Craigslist’s adult-services section, saying that while the company had rejected 700,000 ads since coming to an agreement with the center, it had only reported 137 cases.
“If indeed [the shutdown] occurred, we think this is a positive and encouraging step,” Allen said, while simultaneously saying that ending child sex-trafficking requires “engaging with companies at the center of the problem.”
“We recognize if we crack down in one area, it will migrate to another place,” Allen said. “But that is progress.”
Allen later added that the government ought to find a way to criminally prosecute Craigslist or other services, since the immunity under the law is only for civil matter.
Tina Frundt, who heads Courtney’s House — a Washington, D.C., shelter for exploited children — said that the kids she helps were all sold on Craigslist and that other sites were involved as well.
“Every pimp has a MySpace page,” Frundt testified, adding that ads also show up on Backpages.com. “Every john uses a john board and posts information on where to buy children.”
“This has been going on for many years. We must do something about our children being sold on the internet.”
Jackson Lee and McDougall sparred over Craigslist leaving the Adult Services section up outside the United States, including in Canada.
Jackson suggested that’s not too far to travel for prostitution.
But McDougall countered that it’s not the U.S. government’s business to tell Canada how to run its country and that many advocates think it’s better to have ads in an environment that is monitored and responsive to law enforcement.
“Many have the idealistic approach that if you eliminate “adult services,” you will eliminate child trafficking,” McDougall said. “Craigslist’s approach is practical. It has been to control, educate, and work with law enforcement.”
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