Susan MacTavish Best, publicist for Craigslist, returned a message requesting comment saying “We’ll have a statement at a later time which I’ll send along. (Otherwise, just keep an eye on our blog. http://blog.craigslist.org )”
So far the blog has still been silent about the matter while the web has been abuzz with speculations. It’s clear Craigslist intended to make a statement by labeling the removed section censored rather than just removing it. It was kind of a genius move to do it on a Friday night and without comment. Their silence has fuel more buzz and debate than if they had just made an announcement.
So the big question on everyone’s mind is “what effect will this have on prostitution?”. Craigslist has long argued they have worked hard to be socially responsible and have worked with law enforcement and other experts to find a solution that will appease all parties. For the most part, Craigslist does have a very good reputation in terms of being socially responsible. There is no doubt they have helped millions by offering a free alternative to paid classified ads in a diverse cross section of categories enabling everyday consumers to connect with each other for countless types of transactions.
Newspapers like to blame Craigslist for their demise but that’s just sour grapes from a dinosaur business model who was unable or unwilling to adapt to changing technology going back 15 years. Craigslist didn’t just kill off print media 2 years ago. They have been around since 1995 and throughout the 15 years, folding newspapers have blamed the site for their problems without doing anything to compete. Now it’s too little too late and the 40 million iPads expected to be sold in 2011 will not save print media.
Craigslist took the wrong public strategy
In numerous press interviews, Craigslist have tried to defend their position by focusing on what steps they have taken to screen ads for illegal activity. I believe this was a mistake. By taking this strategy, the site has made themselves a target for failing to remove prostitution ads. If they were 100% successful in this goal of removing illegal prostitution ads, there would effectively be no Adult Services section as it is blatantly obvious to everyone that the vast majority of ads in that section were for prostitution. That would be analogous to a popular bar saying they will screen for people drinking alcohol in their bars.
What they should have done was attack the problem head on. Admit that the section does host ads for prostitution, as do many online classified ads, and formulate a plan to regulate the wording of those ads to meet legal requirements. Behind the scenes, it appears they have done exactly that by implementing manual screening of Adult Services ads starting in May 2009. The site hired an attorney licensed to practice law in the U.S., and trained to enforce Craigslist’s posting guidelines, which are stricter than those typically used by yellow pages, newspapers, or any other companies to review ads. In their blog, they claim to have rejected 700,000 ads forcing many to move on to the much smaller site Backpage which Craigslist claims does no screening at all. A quick look at popular traffic stats does confirm traffic at Backpage spiking after Craigslist started manual screening.
In many ways, the dilemma Craigslist face is the same dilemma the public faces in the legalization of prostitution debate. It’s clear there is no way to eliminate prostitution and one possible solution is to regulate it. But to regulate it means to legalize it and few politicians want to do that. Craigslist’s failure to acknowledge prostitution ads exist in the Adult Services section along with their sheer size has made them an easy target. Anyone would simply look at the section and it becomes blatantly obvious they are all ads for prostitution despite manual screening. Realistically, I find it hard to believe that a single attorney can effectively screen the millions of ads in the Adult Services section.