< All in a Name?


Friday, May 15, 2009

BOB GARFIELD: This week, Craigslist announced it would discontinue the “erotic services” section of its site. After several big media stories about “Craigslist killers” this spring and mounting pressure from states’ attorneys general, Craigslist decided it would change the name of the section to “adult services” and have a Craigslist employee screen every 10-dollar ad bought in that section for content that might violate its terms of service, or the law. Previously, the site had mainly relied on users to do that job. The state attorneys general, for their part, don't have much of the law on their side when it comes to dealing with Craigslist. Under the Communications Decency Act of 1996, websites are not legally responsible for material contributed by users, not to mention a little thing called the First Amendment that offers prior restraint protection even to all those “foot masseuses” out there. Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan was one of those pressuring Craigslist to do something because of what she saw happening in her state.

ATTY. GENERAL LISA MADIGAN: We, here in Illinois, in the Attorney General’s Office, we hold a federal grant for the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force, and we just see horrifying situations, tragedies that occur. And one of the significant problems with Craigslist “erotic services” section is that there are far [LAUGHS] too many ads where, you know, in addition to it being illegal because it’s prostitution, it’s really trafficking that’s going on and the exploitation of children taking place.

BOB GARFIELD: I'm glad you said that, because I want it to be clear that you’re not just being a morality scold here. But that said, what law has Craigslist broken?

ATTY. GENERAL LISA MADIGAN: They have a responsibility. The ads that were being put up on their erotic services section, we don't even have get to what’s illegal; they didn't even meet Craigslist's own terms of use on their site. And so, we encouraged them initially to simply police their own site, enforce their own terms of use. There are people who would argue that, you know, they're protected by the law. You know, they don't control what people post. But society’s not going to put up with a situation where nobody has any responsibility. When you’re providing a forum for this to take place, you can't just stick your head in the sand and act as if it’s not happening.

BOB GARFIELD: I don't think there’s anybody at On the Media who is in favor of a lively market for prostitution, certainly not for the exploitation of women and children. But I am concerned about the government strong-arming a website on matters of content. It seems to me that we're getting into a First Amendment area that’s a little alarming.

ATTY. GENERAL LISA MADIGAN: Well, you know, I - you’re trying to kind of make the slippery slope argument. Listen, I think Craigslist is an extraordinary [LAUGHS] website. I'm not sitting here saying, hey, Craigslist, you shouldn't be putting up ads for ads for jobs. No, we're saying you've got to recognize that your site has become the number one Internet brothel, and you have to take some responsibility for this.

BOB GARFIELD: Attorney General Madigan, thank you.

ATTY. GENERAL LISA MADIGAN: Bob, it’s my pleasure.

BOB GARFIELD: Lisa Madigan is the Attorney General of Illinois. Jim Buckmaster is CEO of Craigslist, and he joins us. Jim, welcome to the show.

JIM BUCKMASTER: Ah, thanks for having me.

BOB GARFIELD: As you know, we just got off the phone with Lisa Madigan, the Attorney General of Illinois and, you know, I don't believe I'm mischaracterizing her statement in saying that she all but conceded that she had no law with which to prosecute you but was able, with her colleagues, other attorneys general, essentially to coercing you into changing your practices. Do you feel as if you've been strong-armed in any way?

JIM BUCKMASTER: If you consult virtually any legal expert that knows about Internet law, not to mention laws pertaining to free speech, clearly Craigslist at all times has been operating in compliance with all applicable laws, so that we bear no legal liability. But to us, that was kind of beside the point. What we're trying to do is consider all feedback that we get from concerned parties and see what we can do to adopt measures that are going to improve the site. They say you know you've struck the right balance when everyone’s unhappy. Some attorneys general are still critical. A lot of legal businesses think our new standards are too stringent. Folks from the free speech community are – I saw one refer to me as a “cheese-eating surrender monkey.”

BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS] Well, I guess if you are, in fact, a cheese-eating surrender monkey, you surrendered in the interest of protecting innocent victims. And that gets to what I think is the central issue of all of this. Is there anything about Craigslist or the Internet that should be making us rethink the First Amendment, for example?

JIM BUCKMASTER: Well, I think the first thing that’s important to do is put things in perspective and make sure we're not overreacting. And I always hesitate to use an analogy, but I'll try one here. Imagine if we brought the same standard to automobiles that some think we should bring the Internet, namely, if it’s possible for someone to get hurt in connection with this tool then we need to write a bunch of new regulations. Well, let's look at the automobile. Why is it okay that an average automobile can go twice the maximum speed limit on any highway? Why is it okay that you’re not forced to wear a seatbelt in an automobile? This is a tool that people use, and 45,000 people are killed each year, and not to mention the number of people maimed and, you know, put in a wheelchair for the rest of their life. I would argue that the Internet is so safe, compared to an automobile, that you can't even talk about them in the same sentence, and yet we're seeing kind of a mass hysteria. Okay, we feel terrible that Craigslist was used in connection with a murder. That’s a terrible tragedy, just like it’s a terrible tragedy when someone is killed in an automobile accident. But when you’re talking about an attorney general saying that the operators of a site like ours, where we're bending over backwards trying to do the right thing, suggesting that we're criminals, I mean, come on!

BOB GARFIELD: Sometimes it’s hard to keep two apparently opposing thoughts in your head at the same time, but it strikes me that you’re both trying to do the right thing and also feeling scapegoated. Am I right about that?

JIM BUCKMASTER: I think there’s some truth there. There has been a bit of a, a witch hunt or a use of Craigslist as a political piñata since, if you look at the underlying statistics, Craigslist is clearly far safer than print classifieds have ever been. And we're going to great lengths to try to put the measures in place that will ultimately create the safest site possible. We feel like a disservice has been done, to some extent, to readers and viewers of media that have tried to portray Craigslist as somehow uniquely dangerous when, in fact, if you look at the statistics, exactly the opposite is true.

BOB GARFIELD: Well Jim, thank you very much.

JIM BUCKMASTER: Ah, thanks for having me.

BOB GARFIELD: Jim Buckmaster is the CEO of Craigslist.