Many advocates of Web freedom were convinced that Craigslist hadn't really surrendered. They were certain that the website only appeared to have thrown in the towel last week in its long-running legal battle over the ads that appeared on its pages under the heading "adult services." After all, the company had put up a hard, years-long defense, and its first step in its so-called defeat was to set up a banner with the word "CENSORED," before even that was taken down. Surely there had to be another chapter in the contest between one of the most popular sites on the Web and a cadre of some 40 states attorneys general who had loudly demanded that Craigslist remove a category for ads that they said were nothing more than fronts for prostitution?
But it turned out to be wishful thinking. On Wednesday, William Powell, director of law-enforcement relations for Craigslist, told the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime that "as of Sept. 3, 2010, Craigslist has terminated its 'adult services' section." He added, however, that such a move would do little to deter the type of ads it carried from appearing elsewhere on the Internet. "Those who formerly posted 'adult services' ads on Craigslist will now advertise at countless other venues. It is our sincere hope that law enforcement and advocacy groups will find helpful partners there."
The turnabout confirms the worst fears of some Internet-advocacy groups that had urged Craigslist to stand up to what they called a campaign of intimidation. Other groups had said it was only a matter of time before the litany of criticism and threats of prosecution by law enforcement and rights groups and others wore the company down.
The shuttering of the "adult services" category (which had been called "erotic services" until last year) came shortly after a South Carolina judge threw out the site's lawsuit against the state's attorney general, Henry McMaster. Craigslist had consistently fought attempts to control its content, arguing that federal law provides powerful, and essential, protection against liability for websites whose users post inappropriate content. Last year, it sued in federal court in Charleston, alleging a campaign of intimidation at the hands of McMaster, who had targeted the ads as a front for prostitution. That was its response to McMaster's raising the ante in the wake of the so-called Craigslist-killer case in New York last year, when he told the company and its executives they had 10 days to remove the ads or face investigation and possible prosecution under state law as an accessory to prostitution. On the 10th day, Craigslist filed suit to stop the threats.
In a phone interview with TIME, McMaster called Craigslist's decision to shutter the ads "a victory for law enforcement." But Web-freedom advocates point out that Congress, through what's known as the Communications Decency Act (CDA) of 1996, has made it clear that bad behavior, and even illegal acts, on the part of a site's patrons isn't enough to hold the site itself liable for that misconduct. For example, if a Yahoo! customer uses e-mail to send a harassing message, the customer can get sued or arrested, but not Yahoo! And if prostitutes want to use Craigslist to meet clients, despite the company's strong warnings that such ads are illegal, then the sex workers and their johns should be targeted, not the site, says Professor Eric Goldman of the Santa Clara University School of Law, who is one of the country's top experts on the CDA.
McMaster says he and the other attorneys general had every right to try to shame Craigslist into dropping the ads, no matter what federal law says. "Was it proper? Everyone has the right you, me, everyone to take a stand on these ads. They are harmful, and I don't know what Craigslist was thinking when they allowed them in the first place. After the murders happened in New York, we asked again, and then gave a deadline to take the ads off, or they'd be investigated. And if proof was found that they knew an ad was for prostitution and kept it up there, then we'd prosecute them."
Indeed, McMaster told TIME earlier this week before Powell's testimony that he and other law-enforcement officials in South Carolina were looking at Craigslist closely. If ads by prostitutes reappear anywhere else on the site, local law enforcement will seek proof that the company has knowledge of their connection to the sex trade. If they find such proof, Craigslist may find itself back in court in South Carolina, this time facing criminal charges. "The question is whether Craigslist knows the ads are related to prostitution. We said we would prosecute them if an investigation shows they do. And we still would."