Craigslist closed the adult services section of its website Saturday, replacing it with a black bar that says “censored,” just over a week after a group of state attorneys general said there weren’t enough protections against blocking potentially illegal ads promoting prostitution.
The listings came under new scrutiny after the jailhouse suicide last month of a former medical student who was awaiting trial in the killing of a masseuse he met through Craigslist. Critics have likened the services to virtual pimping, while Craigslist maintained the site was carrying ads even tamer than those published by some newspapers.
Last week, Maine Attorney General Janet Mills said she was joining an effort by at least 17 state attorneys general that asks the popular Craigslist website to remove its adult services section because they argue the site cannot adequately block ads that may be illegal and promote prostitution.
“I fully support the letter sent by 17 other attorneys general of differing political persuasions and from all over the country,” Mills said in an interview. “I fully agree with their letter in its request that Craigslist immediately take down the adult services section of the website.”
Craigslist did not immediately return an e-mail seeking comment.
Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, one of the AGs who pressed for the change, said in a written statement that he welcomed the change and was trying to verify Craigslist’s official policy going forward.
He said if it was doing the right thing voluntarily in response to the AGs, it could set a good example for others.
In an Aug. 24 letter, the state attorneys general said Craigslist should remove the section because it couldn’t adequately block potentially illegal ads promoting prostitution and child trafficking.
Craigslist CEO Jim Buckmaster said in a May blog posting that the company’s ads were no worse than those published by the alternative newspaper chain Village Voice Media. He cited one explicit ad which included the phrase: “anything goes $90.”
Craigslist has been caught for years in a murky legal fight that centers on how much responsibility the company bears for its ads, said Jonathan Zittrain, professor of law and computer science at Harvard University.
Prosecutors can argue Craigslist is an “intermediary” to the crime of prostitution, Zittrain said, but such cases are hard to prove. He said prosecutors must essentially prove that Craigslist knew an ad was a solicitation for prostitution; ads on Craigslist are typically worded more vaguely.
Nonetheless, to avoid a legal showdown, the company has tried to keep “inappropriate activity” off its site by screening ads.
It’s unclear if Craigslist felt the attorneys general had a good argument, or if it simply got tired of spending time on the issue. But saying adult services were “censored” rather than just removing could be seen as a message to prosecutors, Zittrain said.
“They don’t like being pushed around” Zittrain said.