Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Craigslist drops 'Erotic Services'; a win for Section 230

Craigslist has abrubtly reversed course and decided to jettison its "Erotic Services" category, caving in the face of pressure from state attorneys general, a federal lawsuit by the Cook County, Illinois sheriff, and public uproar over Boston's "Craigslist Killer." Reports the AP:
The online classified ads site Craigslist will drop its "erotic services" category that critics called a front for prostitution, replacing it with an adult category to be monitored internally, government enforcers from three states said Wednesday.
Elaborates the LA Times:
[T]he classifieds site has created an "adult services" category for which every new listing will be manually approved. Currently most ads on the site are posted without review.

As of today, the erotic services section will no longer accept new ads, and will be removed completely in seven days. Posts to the "adult services" section will cost $10, twice as much as those for erotic services listings. Craigslist had agreed to donate proceeds from the erotic services listings to charity, but says that rule will not necessarily apply to the new ads.
I'm no expert on the best way to combat prostitution (and I'm skeptical that the government should even be in the business of combating most forms of prostitution), and I have my doubts that this move -- and does a "move" from "erotic services" to "adult services" really count as a "move"? -- will have much of an effect on the overall level of online hooking.

But I do think Craigslist's action is smart -- both for Craigslist itself and for all sites that rely on the protections Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act to avoid liability for content submitted by others.

Section 230 immunity is virtually airtight, and would almost certainly shield Craigslist from liability from lawsuits arising out of the posting of prostitution ads. But by hiding behind that shield, knowing full well that the "Erotic Services" section is nothing more than a marketplace for criminals and their customers, Craigslist was doing real damage to Section 230. As I've argued before, by continuing to maintain such a section in light of the abundant evidence that it was being used as a gathering place for criminal activity, Craigslist was virtually inviting courts, and eventually the Congress, to narrow and weaken Section 230's protections -- a result that could lead to liability for Craigslist's other, legitimate sections, and ultimately cause all sites that now feature user-submitted content to alter or even eliminate their comment sections, bulletin boards, and similar features.

Craigslist didn't have to make this change to avoid liability over today's controversies. But by doing so, it lessened the chances of judges and politicians doing real damage to a law that has made possible free speech on the Internet. And that is a good thing. Sometimes the smartest move is not to push the law to its limit -- lest it break.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Comments here are moderated. I appreciate substantive comments, whether or not they agree with what I've written. Stay on topic, and be civil. Comments that contain name-calling, personal attacks, or the like will be rejected. If you want to rant about how evil the RIAA and MPAA are, and how entertainment companies' employees and attorneys are bad people, there are plenty of other places for you to go.