Craigslist Goes to Washington

It's been a couple of weeks since Craigslist removed access to its controversial "Adult Services" section in the U.S., following immense pressure from many state attorney generals and advocacy groups. Opponents had argued that section of the site, which was expected to make $36 million in posting fees for Craigslist this year, aided prostitution and the trafficking of minors.

Craigslist hasn’t yet said what prompted its sudden reversal. There's no mention of it at all on its blog. But we are likely to learn more tomorrow, when William "Clint" Powell, the site’s Director of Customer Service and Law Enforcement Relations, becomes a witness before the Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security, which is holding a hearing on domestic minor sex trafficking.

Was the subcommittee hearing the cause of Craigslist’s recent decision? After all, Powell (who will testify along with an attorney from the law firm Perkins Coie, which represents Craigslist) will be in a much more comfortable position speaking to skeptical representatives tomorrow. But Suzanna Tiapula, Director of the National Center for the Prosecution of Child Abuse, who will also be testifying, thinks it unlikely that the shadow of a congressional hearing caused Craigslist to change its tune. "I think they’re under tremendous pressure," she says. "This is just one of many prongs."

Indeed, 18 state attorney generals had called on Craigslist to abandon the section. Civil litigators have been considering class action lawsuits on behalf of minors who say their abuse was enabled through the site. Another of tomorrow’s witnesses, Tina Frundt, Founder of the nonprofit Courtney's House, says that the majority of kids helped by her nonprofit "have been trafficked through Craigslist." Their average age when they entered prostitution was 12, she adds.

Craigslist had been protected by a federal law, Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which exempts sites like Craigslist from legal liability for content created by users. The "Adult Services" section had often been useful to law enforcement, who were able to catch prostitutes and johns through the site. This led Tracy Quan of the advocacy group of the advocacy group Prostitutes of New York to say that the Internet had simply become a "virtual street," a morally-neutral turf where miscreants, victims, and cops all enact their roles.

Tiapula disagrees: "Craigslist is a lot more than a street," she says. "The wires used to carry the transmissions—that’s the street. But you have someone standing on the street, directing the traffic, saying please go here, and they are charging for the privilege." Tiapula, Frundt, and others all emphasized that while they were glad to see Craigslist shut down the U.S. "Adult Services" section, that section remained live abroad.

Will these points be made at tomorrow’s hearing? We'll find out a little after 1PM EDT, when it begins. Perhaps we’ll finally learn Craigslist’s reasoning behind its sudden change of policy. Erin Neff, also of Courtney’s House, would like the answer to be simple. "Hopefully it was their conscience," she says.

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