Richard Blumenthal, Connecticut’s attorney general, is not pleased with Craigslist.
He wrote to the US online company in April 2010 castigating the owners for taking paid prostitution adverts on the site. The initially private letter was part-published in the New York Times. Blumenthal had written:
“I believe Craigslist acted irresponsibly when it unilaterally decided to keep the profits from these posts.”
Addressed to Craigslist CEO, James Buckmaster, Blumenthal asked the company to declare its profits from the sex ads and explain its policy on accepting them.
Craiglist has sex ad revenue estimated to be worth around $36 million this year. That’s against total sales of around $100 million.
Buckmaster’s response to the attorney general’s letter was unequivocal:
“Misuse of Craigslist for criminal purposes is utterly unacceptable, and Craigslist will continue to work…until it is eliminated.”
Craigslist was set up in 1995 by Craig Newmark. It gets over 20 billion page views monthly. The company argues that it has no liability for content posted by its users, referring those who argue to the contrary to the Communications Decency Act. Craigslist would argue that its own terms and conditions for posting material are quite clear and forbid pornographic images, other sexual imagery and a ban on advertising any illegal service.
Nevertheless, organizations that campaign to stop human trafficking have accused Craigslist of being the world’s major online site for traffickers advertising women for sale. Also in April 2010, the FBI rounded up 14 members of the notorious Gambino crime family accusing them of advertising prostitutes on the site. The girls being advertised were between 15 and 19.
The spat between Blumenthal and Craigslist highlights the increasingly complex contemporary issue of online hosts’ responsibility, or otherwise, for content contributed to their sites.
Facebook ran into trouble in 2010 as young users were found to be at risk of online grooming by paedophiles. And Chatroulette has been under attack for exposing young users to online sex activity with total strangers. In 2009, Google executives were held legally responsible for a criminal video, depicting a violent assault, which was posted on YouTube. That case was heard in Italy and the Italian courts rejected Google’s argument that they were not responsible for content posted by users.
An analogy in the non-virtual world might be this. Online content providers could argue that they’re no more responsible for sex services being advertised on their site than a roadbuilder is responsible for a hooker approaching kerb-crawlers on the road he built. The forces of law and order could respond No, your site is more like a shop window. If a hooker wants to come and display herself in it, you have to police that attempt.
This is an issue far from being resolved and bound to become more complex – and surely more lucrative for the legal profession – as time goes on.