Feeling Burned By the Press, Craigslist Hunkers Down

The powers behind craigslist.org appear to have decided that withdrawal is the best strategy to deal with recent controversy around the “adult services” section of the site.

Last week, Craigslist shut down “adult services,” which normally features paid advertisments for sex. “Adult services” was recently the subject of legal threats from 18 states, but it looks like it was media coverage that drove the people behind Craigslist underground. Craigslist has not responded to any media inquiries since the shutdown.

A CNN primetime investigation that aired last month featured human rights advocates who accused Craigslist of facilitating human sex trafficking and even prostitution of minors (see “Craigslist Under Fire for Kids on ‘Adult Services'”).

In the special, CNN’s Amber Lyon approached founder Craig Newmark after an event and asked him some accusatory questions about how the site polices its community. Newmark appeared very uncomfortable; at points he was unable to answer. He ended up looking very bad.

In the days after the special, Newmark was friendly and very responsive to my emails. He cited “iPad Compulsive Disorder” when I thanked him for responding so quickly. The company also responded to the controversy fairly aggressively on its blog, responding directly to advocates quoted by CNN, outlining its manual screening policy, and ripping apart the claim that eBay classifieds (proposed as an alternative to Craigslist) are “family-friendly.” CEO Jim Buckmaster even posted a letter accusing Lyon of sensationalism and self-promotion.

The CNN story that put founder Newmark in an unfavorable spotlight.

Newmark also published an op-ed, “What I Should Have Said to CNN’s Amber Lyon,” defending himself. He cites his tendency toward Asperger’s Syndrome, a disorder on the autistic spectrum, and the fact that he has not been at the helm of Craigslist for 10 years.

Now, Silence From Craigslist

But the media has not gotten a peep from Craigslist since the “adult services” blackout. “Sorry, no statement,” spokeswoman Susan MacTavish Best said when The New York Times asked about the blackout. IPad-compulsive Newmark has not responded to me in three days. Asked via Twitter to do an interview and “talk about anything you like,” Newmark responded “not soon.”

Meanwhile, the media continue to cover the story, and not in the best light. “Some See a Ploy as Craigslist Blocks Sex Ads,” The New York Times wrote. Lyon accused Newmark of lying in a follow-up segment on CNN.

The law is on Craigslist’s side – websites are not liable for content posted by users under section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. But Craigslist has given up anyway. It’s not because its owners want to prevent sex trafficking – Craigslist has maintained that it does more harm than good because law enforcement agencies can use it just as easily as pimps can.

The 30-person company doesn’t have the muscle or the savvy to fight a public relations battle. But it may be hurting itself more by clamming up.

Letting Go of the Narrative

From here, it looks like Craigslist botched its defense from the beginning by attacking its accusers and presenting an unpolished explanation of how it polices its community of 50 million users.

The 30-person company doesn’t have the muscle or the savvy to fight a public relations battle. But it may be hurting itself more by clamming up.

Or maybe it’s smart for Craigslist to sit back and let the media argue both sides of its case. The Huffington Post has a story, “How Censoring Craigslist Helps Pimps, Child Traffickers and Other Abusive Scumbags, written by a Microsoft researcher.”

What do you think – should Craigslist speak up? Or hold its peace?

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