Craigslist to Congress: Sex ads gone for good on U.S. sites

Posted by on Sep 15, 2010 in Craigslist, Marketplace

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Commercial-sex ads are gone for good on Craigslist’s U.S. sites, according to testimony before the U.S. House Judiciary Committee’s hearing on domestic minor sex trafficking.

William Clinton Powell, Craigslist’s director of customer service and law-enforcement relations, said there were “no plans” to bring back the category. He reiterated as much in a follow-up questions.  “We do not have any intention of bringing the category back,” he said when pressed by U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Houston.

His prepared testimony suggested as much, but there was no definitive statement to that effect. He went off-script to emphasize that Craigslist is apparently through with “adult-services” ads, but in examination, pointed out that he wasn’t the ultimate decision-maker.  He provided no explanation of  Craigslist’s change of heart on Sept. 3, when it eliminated its “adult-services” category, even though Lee had asked the question.

In the company’s org chart – if it has one – Craigslist founder and majority owner Craig Newmark works for Powell. Powell works for CEO Jim Buckmaster.

The Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security also heard from attorney Elizabeth L. “Liz” McDougall, partner of Seattle-based Perkins Coie LLP, who has represented Craigslist for at least two years in court cases and in negotiations with state attorneys general and law enforcement officers.

No surprise here: There was no acknowledgment of how much money the privately held company made in 2010 on adult-services revenue. (We estimated the company was on track to make about $45 million in 2010, before the ads were canned. We now estimate Craigslist made about $30 million in the 34 weeks of 2010 it ran adult-services ads.)

Off-script, McDougall pointed out that the state attorneys general coalition that pressured Craigslist to make changes in 2008 had suggested Craigslist charge for the sex ads. She said it had never been Craigslist’s intention.

Also no surprise: Craigslist maintained a generally defensive posture, positioning itself as “law-enforcement friendly” and having done more to keep crime off of its site than any other. In her prepared testimony,  McDougall said that Craigslist has been working hard since Sept. 3 to keep commercial-sex ads from infesting other categories.

“Craigslist is employing proprietary technical measures to force the migration of adult services ads from Craigslist to other venues,” McDougall said in her testimony. “Frequent spot-checking by Craigslist and third parties indicate that these efforts have been largely successful, and traffic at other venues for adult service ads has risen significantly due to this migration.” She enclosed in her prepared remarks our own observations in that regard.

“As a legal counselor with a strong personal interest in combating human trafficking and child exploitation, it has been my sincere privilege to assist this exceptionally conscientious company and it is sadly dismaying to see Craigslist’s good deeds in this regard be unduly punished,” she concluded. Her full testimony is here. (PDF)

Powell, in his testimony, outlined the steps that Craigslist had taken over the years to work with law enforcement and to identify potential criminal activity. His full testimony is here. (PDF.) “Those who formerly posted adult services ads on Craigslist will now advertise on countless over venues,” he said. “It is our sincere hope that law enforcement and advocacy groups will find helpful partners there.”

He added that that since Craigslist eliminated the sex ads, similar ads on competitor BackPage have increased.

He acknowledged that Craigslist still hosts commercial-sex ads on its international sites, but deflected the question whether Craigslist is planning to eliminate them as well. He cited “issues” from nation-to-nation.

In examination, McDougall and Lee sparred over the fact that Craigslist still hosts sex ads in Canada. Lee contended that Craigslist should shut them. McDougall said those weren’t conversations Craigslist has had with Canadian authorities and that pressure from authorities in the U.S. shouldn’t dictate the company’s strategy in Canada.

The subcommittee heard from 10 other witnesses who painted a grim picture of the problem of the sex-trafficking of minors. The Internet has exacerbated the problem, they said, because from the privacy of their homes and hotel rooms, sex purchasers can have a “child at their doorstep at a click of a button,” said U.S. Rep.Jackie Speier, D-San Mateo, Calif.

There are at least 100,000 American children sold into sexual slavery, advocates said; the average age is 13.

Generally, what advocates hope to accomplish:

  • Treat underage children in the sex trade as victims, rather than criminals. Currently, the only alternative sanctuaries are typically juvenile-detention facilities.
  • More funding: The U.S. currently spends more money on combating international trafficking of children than it spends on U.S. children. (No one suggests that the U.S. shouldn’t help non-American children.)
  • Better enforcement of existing laws intended to stop human trafficking and prostitution.
  • Close what they consider to be loopholes in the Communications Decency Act of 1996, that allow Internet sites to accept sex-ad advertising without penalty.

For testimony from other panelists, go to the subcommittee’s website. A video replay of the hearing will be made available.

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Written by Jim Townsend