Last week, craigslist was the subject of a primetime CNN story that criticized the site for "not doing enough" to prevent child sex trafficking, quoting a youth rights advocate who said craigslist is the primary venue for selling minors for sex. The reporter ambushed craigslist founder Craig Newmark, who appeared to be unable to answer her questions about what the site is doing to prevent exploitation of underage girls.
But the story continues to ripple through the media, and CNN ran a second segment two days ago.
Craigslist a red herring?
There are ads for minors in craigslist's adult services section, but craigslist is "not by any means" the main venue, said Andrea Austin, a spokesperson for the anti-human trafficking organization Polaris Project, which runs the National Human Trafficking Hotline.
"I'm wary that people are getting so caught up in craigslist that they're forgetting why they're talking about it," Austin said. "Sex trafficking happens and it happens in the United States. Craigslist is just one vehicle that traffickers use."
Craigslist asked users to send an email to the site if they see a prohibited listing, such as one that explicitly or implicitly advertises a minor for sex. But despite the increased attention to the issue, craigslist said it has seen "absolutely nothing" in the way of an increase of crimes reported to firstname.lastname@example.org.
An ad from the "casual encounters" section of craigslist in Washington, D.C. Ads in "casual encounters" display links to "flag" a post as prohibited, but ads in "adult services" do not. Thanks to @capnleela for help finding sketchy ads.
That suggests that either the ads are so cleverly coded that ordinary users can't tell that they are about minors, or that violations are not as rampant as media reports imply.
Policing user-generated content
Craigslist is not legally liable for posts that advertise prostitution or child prostitution under section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, said Kurt Opsahl, a senior staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights advocacy group.
That's the same provision that makes it possible for sites like Yelp and Twitter and features like Amazon user reviews to exist. Without that protection, the potential liability of allowing users to contribute content would be too great to allow such sites to exist without intensive monitoring, he said.
Ads for sex are getting through
But check the adult services section of any major city and you'll see ads with pictures of scantily-clad men and women, offering a massage or an ambiguous "good time," often with a dollar figure per hour. Ads that could be for underage teens and children are harder to find, but they're there, usually with code words such as "fresh," "new" or "just 18."
Those ads could be getting through because they don't explicitly mention sex, Opsahl said.
"In a law enforcement context, if you brought that [ad] to a jury accusing someone of prostitution, the jury would probably acquit because that doesn't prove it," he said.
Craigslist would have to ban all posts with "a suggestive photo, measurements and a dollar figure, and that seems to be a tough rule," he said.
Over 750,000 ads have been rejected, under unwritten standards
Newmark said the site has rejected over 725,000 adult services ads, but declined to spell out the guidelines craigslist uses:
I can't discuss specific screening criteria without helping the bad guys get around our protective measures, but I can say that in order to post, each user must confirm that she or he is advertising only legal services, and our screeners look for anything that may be inconsistent with that representation.
And of course, each user provides us with credit card information and a telephone number that can be tracked back to them in the event of unlawful behavior.
Pimps can use craigslist - but so can cops
And that may be the strongest case for keeping craigslist's adult services section around - it brings trafficking above ground.
Police can use the information on craigslist to stage stings, which would do more to combat sex trafficking than anything craigslist could do, Opsahl said.
"As I understand it, craigslist is actually trying really hard to be a good actor here," Opsahl said.
If you suspect human trafficking on craigslist, alert law enforcement and send an email to email@example.com. You can also report suspected trafficking to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center by calling 1-888-373-7888. More information about human trafficking, of minors and otherwise in the United States, is here.