Will craigslist crackdown on sex ads do more harm than good?

Ever since a Boston medical school student was charged with murdering one woman and robbing two others he met through craigslist.com, pressure has been mounting on the free classified Web site to crackdown on its sexually-oriented listings which are seen as fronts for prostitution.

Illinois Attorney Lisa Madigan referred to the company's "Erotic Services" listings as "nothing more than an Internet brothel." The company, which has descimated the classifieds business of most newspapers, argued about the First Amendment and the rights of consenting adults. No matter, craigslist lacks the resources to fight against state attorneys general who can show they are tough crime by being tough on the site.

Under the terms of an agreement hammered out between craigslist and the attorneys general, the company will no longer accept new "erotic services" listings and in seven days the category will be removed. Effective today for all US sites, a new category entitled "adult services" will be opened for legal services.

The company will accept the ads for thing like strippers or nude cleaning services once under a new system whereby each ad will be manually reviewed to insure that it is legal and meets the craigslist terms of use. New postings will cost $10, but once approved, will be eligible for reposting at $5.

The agreement was needed after an earlier agreement between craigslist and 42 attorneys general to crack down on illegal activity in its erotic services ads proved to be ineffective.

"But in April 2009, Madigan sent a letter to craigslist CEO Jim Buckmaster calling on the Web site to shut down the erotic services section due to overwhelming evidence that craigslist had breached the previous agreement by failing to develop an effective screening procedure to stop illegal ads from being posted," a statement from Madigan's office says.

This represents a change from the old craigslist policy which was to count on users to flag ads which violated the rules which strikes me as a cop-out. It also took a don't ask don't tell approach to the services promoted in these ads.

"Illegal activity is absolutely not welcome, and will not be tolerated," the site said. "However, when it comes to legal conduct between consenting adults, we feel it is important to err on the side of respecting free speech and privacy rights, and to leave moral judgments to the greater wisdom of the craigslist community, who are empowered through our flagging system."

One person who is not cheering the change is Robyn Few, founder of the Sex Worker Outreach Project. In an interview with DailyFinance, she said many sex workers use craigslist because they are familiar with it and it's easy to use.

The Internet has taken prostitutes off the streets and put them behind a computer. If craigslist is close to them, these people may be forced back on the streets.

"It will harm the most marginalized people in the community first.," she said.

The Erotic Services listings has had a link to her group's Web site ever since it started.

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