Craigslist to Limit “Erotic Services” Ads

Further to yesterday’s posting about ethically controversial products, here’s a story about a business (Craigslist) facilitating one ethically controversial business (prostitution). It’s a story about a company changing its behaviour in response to legal pressures, but also a story about technology-enabled commerce, technological solutions to social problems, and compromise solutions in the face of diversity of opinion regarding the ethical status of a commercial service.

Here are the first bits of the story, from the NYT: Craigslist Agrees to Curb Sex Ads:

The online classifieds company Craigslist said Thursday that it had reached an agreement with 40 state attorneys general and agreed to tame its notoriously unruly “erotic services” listings.

Prostitutes and sex-oriented businesses have long used that section of Craigslist to advertise their services.

Early this year, the attorney general of Connecticut, Richard Blumenthal, representing 40 states, sent a letter to Craigslist demanding that it purge the site of such material and better enforce its own rules against illegal activity, including prostitution. The two sides began a series of conversations about what Craigslist could do to prevent such ads.

“They identified ads that were crossing the line,” said Jim Buckmaster, chief executive of Craigslist. “We looked at those ads, we saw their point, and we resolved to see what we could do to get that stuff off the site.”

Just a couple of quick points:

  • Note that the solution being adopted is a harm-reduction strategy: Craigslist isn’t going to eliminate its Erotic Services category, just exercise more oversight and accountability. That’s not a criticism, just an observation.
  • Note that the solution being proposed is a technical one: Craigslist has the technological savvy & capacity to implement some oversight & accountability mechanisms. It’s a technological solution to a social problem — though, of course, it’s a social problem enabled by technology in the first place.
  • Note also that Craigslist is going to be charging a small fee to credit cards of people who post ads in the Erotic Services category. New source of profits? Nope. The company “will donate the money to charities, including those that combat child exploitation and human trafficking.” Why? Presumably to combat charges that their business is promoting not just prostitution, but exploitation. But if that’s true, is a donation to charity the right solution?
  • Finally, a question to ponder: from an ethical point of view, how much responsibility does a company bear for the activities it makes possible? This question has vexed Internet Service Providers — often accused of facilitating the exchange of child pornography, for example — for years. Same goes for file-sharing services like Napster. If (if) you believe prostitution is immoral, where does that leave companies that provide goods & services that make prostitution possible? In order to be blameworthy, does a company have to intend, or merely foresee, that its goods & services will be used that way?

2 comments so far

  1. Peter on

    I wish that CL would start doing this in Canada. Its March 2010 and we still have a wild out of control Erotic CL section.

  2. Anonymous on

    isn’t that the point to actually be wild and out of control–at least sometimes in life. Stop regulating my sex life it’s my choice.

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