Pressure on Craigslist to Drop Its Prostitution Ads Gains Momentum [Update: “Adult Services” Taken Down]

Despite earlier measures intended to prevent the illegal classifieds, Craigslist may be earning more than $35 million from them.


UPDATE: On Saturday, Sept. 4, Craigslist removed access to its adult services section, the New York Times first reported. The reason — whether from pressure or a change in internal policy — was still unclear. In the place of the usual adult services link was a black box with the word “CENSORED.”


Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley demanded Craigslist remove its adult services section on Aug. 24, joining 17 other state AGs who have already called on the personal ads site to drop the category in about a week. Pressure on Craigslist has increased recently thanks to a widening belief that the company is gaining revenue through illegal advertisements for prostitution and sex trafficking, despite its 2008 effort to curtail the problem.

In May, Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal issued a subpoena to Craigslist after reports surfaced that the classifieds Web site may be earning over $35 million from illegal ads. “The Craigslist brothel business seems booming–belying its promise to fight prostitution,” said Blumenthal, who is leading a 39-state effort to regulate the site’s screening process. “The best evidence is the thousands of ads that remain on Craigslist–skimpily and slickly disguised with code words. We’re asking Craigslist for specific answers about steps to screen and stop sex-for-money offers–and whether the company is actually profiting from prostitution ads that it promised states and the public that it would try to block.”

So far, Craigslist CEO Jim Buckmaster has snubbed any pressure for the site to comply, arguing that many criticisms have been misdirected. “Cynical misuse of a cause as important as human trafficking as a pretense for imposing one’s own flavor of religious morality (‘casual sex is evil’) strikes me as wrong on so many levels,” wrote Buckmaster, in a May blog post–he also called Blumenthal’s efforts a “a good photo op” for his senatorial campaign.


But his rhetoric has since softened.

“Craigslist is committed to being socially responsible, and when it comes to adult services ads, that includes aggressively combating violent crime and human rights violations, including human trafficking and the exploitation of minors,” he wrote last week. “We are working intensively as I write this with experts and thought leaders at leading non-profits and among law enforcement on further substantive measures we can take. We are profoundly grateful to those offering us their expert assistance in this regard.”

Until Craiglist complies, the nearly-nationwide pressure on the site will continue. Massachusetts AG Coakley said the sexual ads played a “harmful role” arguing, “The incongruity between your claimed mission and your insistence on promoting ‘adult services’ is startling. You cannot reasonably lay claim to a public service mission yet turn a blind eye to the link between adult services ads and illegal conduct and exploitation.”

“Only Craigslist has the power to stop these ads before they are even published,” said Kansas AG Steve Six in a statement yesterday. “Sadly, they are completely unwilling to do so.”

Buckmaster has yet to respond to these latest calls for Craigslist reform.

About the author

Austin Carr writes about design and technology for Fast Company magazine.