It appears that Craigslist has finally decided running “erotic services” ads — thinly disguised promotions for prostitution — is not worth the grief. Without fanfare, as is typical of Craigslist, the free-classifieds site appears to have removed the category from its sites around the world.
Somewhere, a cheer is going up. It was bad press and bad business, and past time that Craigslist moved on from this.
In September, Craigslist removed its paid adult-services category in the U.S. after a long-running battle with lawmakers and human-rights groups. Shortly afterward, in testifying about it before U.S. Congress, lawmakers asked why Craigslist still held onto similar categories elsewhere, notably Canada. The answer was painfully weak.
“If this decision stands, and we believe it will, it will generate a flood of good publicity for the company,” said AIM Group founding principal Peter M. Zollman. The AIM Group has been tracking Craigslist’s revenue since 2003, and reporting on Craigslist for more than 10 years.
“Ironically, the decision won’t have any direct impact on Craigslist’s revenue, because none of the Craigslist sites outside the United States charged for advertising. So the net revenue effect will be zero. There may be some impact on traffic — either positive or negative — but Craigslist has taken a major step forward in building goodwill, without costing the company a penny in revenue.”
Neither CEO Jim Buckmaster, founder Craig Newmark nor spokeswoman Susan MacTavish Best responded to an inquiry about the apparent decision to eliminate the ads from all of its global sites.
Craigslist, which has run personal ads for almost all of its 15 years, continues to carry the standard “men seeking women” and similar personal ads, including “casual encounters.” But the casual encounters category, which once also served as a haven for ads by prostitutes, appears to have been policed by Craigslist to eliminate the most blatant ads for paid sex. Although the underlying subtext is apparent, the ”casual encounters” ads we checked made no direct references to payment.
Canadian Justice Minister Rob Nicholson issued a statement saying he was pleased the erotic services section was gone. ”Our government was concerned that such advertisements could facilitate serious criminal offences, such as living on the avails of child prostitution and trafficking in persons,” he told the Canadian Press.
Some Canadian government officials have complained for years about the ads, but the requests for elimination of “erotic services” ads on Craigslist in Canada grew louder after they were shut down in the States in September. Ontario Attorney General Chris Bentley wrote two letters to Buckmaster requesting that they be eliminated, and the Canadian federal government and justice officials in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta made similar requests. Bentley told the CP that eliminating the ads was “an important step and an important signal.”
“We’re pleased Craigslist appears to have taken steps to protect women, children and the vulnerable,” he said. “When we raised this we took the position Craigslist should do the same for Ontarians that they did for Americans.”
The erotic services ads were apparently eliminated from Canadian and all other international Craigslist sites sometime Friday without comment. There was no post on Buckmaster’s blog, which is where he frequently announces changes in Craigslist’s services. When they were eliminated in the United States, they were briefly replaced with a “Censored” bar; no such notice was given in the latest action.
The elimination of sex-worker ads appears to have had a negative effect on Craigslist traffic: According to Compete.com, site traffic for November was off about 10 percent from November 2009. That’s hardly a business killer.
Eventually, the change in strategy will have a positive effect on Craigslist’s reputation, in a time when most free-ad competitors — running for a very distant second place in the U.S. — have been trying to differentiate themselves from Craigslist on issues of trust and safety.
For Craigslist’s sake, we hope that’s where Newmark and Buckmaster focus their efforts going forward.
With the elimination of adult services ads from Craigslist, Backpage.com, operated by Village Voice Media, remains the largest site for prostitution ads in the United States, with November revenue estimated at nearly $1.5 million for online ads alone, according to AIM Group research.
AIM Group founding principal Peter M. Zollman and senior consultant Mark Whittaker contributed to this report.