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Scapegoating Craigslist Is Not Going to Solve the Problem of Underage Prostitution

For years, politicians have gone after Craigslist for ads promoting sex trafficking and prostitution. At best their efforts are misguided, and may even exacerbate the problem.

You’d be hard-pressed to find any media-aware person who has never used or heard of Craigslist, the online classifieds that enjoy a uniquely ubiquitous Internet presence all over America and increasingly around the globe.

Craigslist serves 700 cities in 70 countries. It’s the 11th most visited website in the U.S. and it’s used by 50 million unique users a month, who make 423 million monthly visits and generate billions of page views. Chances are, you or someone you know has bought a used couch, looked for a job, found true love, or tried to get laid using Craigslist.

These days, Craigslist is getting a different, far less desirable kind of attention: The site’s personal ads have come under aggressive scrutiny and attack from law enforcement officials all over the country. Predictably, a media feeding frenzy has ensued.

Anti-human trafficking advocates, frustrated by the horrific and seemingly intractable problem of sex trafficking in the U.S., have accused the site of facilitating forced prostitution.

Meanwhile, for several years, a pack of Attorney Generals, led by Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, has targeted Craigslist with lawsuits and threats, claiming that the site features ads for underage prostitutes and sex trafficking victims. Several have demanded that Craigslist entirely drop their Adult Services section.

Most recently Jackie Speier, a member of Congress from the Silicon Valley area, held a press conference where she asked Craigslist to halt Adult Services. Speier raised the publicity stakes further, asking the House Judiciary Committee to hold a hearing on how Web sites like Craigslist are being used to "facilitate criminal activity."

You read that right: Speier is not asking for a hearing about the problem of underage sex trafficking. She’s asking Congress to investigate Craigslist, despite the fact that the site has not broken any laws and has made countless changes to address the concerns of law enforcement officials, politicians and human rights activists.

Here’s how Craigslist CEO Jim Buckmaster responded to Speiers’ attack:

I'm confident you will soon realize shutting down portions of Craigslist is no answer, and in fact would be a big step in the wrong direction with respect to the very issues you have raised ... Trafficking and child exploitation are despicable, and while exceedingly rare on Craigslist, any ad facilitating crime is utterly unacceptable, and we work tirelessly with law enforcement to ensure any such victim receives the assistance they deserve and anyone responsible is prosecuted. With 50 million Americans engaging in billions of human interactions each month, the overwhelming majority of which are well-intentioned, the incidence of crime on Craigslist is exceptionally low. However, our tolerance for crime is zero … 

So what’s the real story here? Do Craigslist’s critics, who seem to have singled out the site as their focus in the fight against teen prostitution, have a point? Or is Craigslist merely a convenient scapegoat?

The Unique, Unorthodox Power House that is Craigslist

Over the past decade the wildly successful Craigslist has wreaked havoc in the media industry. The site’s hugely popular free ads have undermined a newspaper industry financially dependent on paid advertising. The online classifieds have hastened the decline of dailies as well as alternative weeklies, creating many unhappy – and more than a few unemployed – people.

Founder Craig Newmark is a well-known figure that attends many conferences, making himself quite accessible in his own inscrutable way. He is the earnest nerd, the shy eligible bachelor, the non-partisan good-government and journalism advocate who at times as referred to himself politically as a Whig. With characteristic modesty, Newmark says his title is "customer service rep.” Yet Newmark sits atop a potential goldmine. If Craigslist is ever taken public or is sold, Newmark could make billions. Hell, the New York Observer recently listed Newmark as the 14th most powerful real estate figure in NYC, ahead of Donald Trump and Andrew Cuomo, likely the next governor of NY.

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