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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.

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But Newmark is not interested in using the site to turn massive profits. And part of the reason for the media frenzy always surrounding Craigslist is the site’s unorthodox business model, which seems to cause equal parts fascination and frustration.

The site’s lack of interest in making a huge profit, as well as in offering the latest bells and whistles of the sophisticated technophiles, has made it a target of the business-oriented tech press, led by Wired, which is owned by the mega publishing company Cond é Nast. 

A recent Wired story by Gary Wolfe was headlined " Why Craigslist Is Such a Mess." The article criticizes Craigslist for not trying to up its profits the old fashioned way, by improving services, adding technology fixes, and charging money.

Wolfe writes that Craigslist reaches nearly a fifth of the nation's adult population every month. "It is the most important community site going and yet the most underdeveloped. Think of any Web feature that has become popular in the past 10 years: Chances are Craigslist has considered it and rejected it. If you try to build a third-party application designed to make Craigslist work better, the management will almost certainly throw up technical roadblocks to shut you down."

CEO Buckmaster makes it clear why Wired and many seem frustrated: "Craig Newmark and I have been called communists and socialists for putting community ahead of financial considerations. After 15 years of focusing on public service, 50 million people now rely on Craigslist each month for their everyday needs. To the eternal amazement of financial analysts we have never sought to maximize our personal gain. Not because we’re saints, but because valuing service over money is more fulfilling and enjoyable, and has always felt like the right thing to do.”

Wolfe seems frustrated that Craigslist is free: "Besides offering nearly all of its features for free, it scorns advertising, refuses investment, ignores design, and does not innovate. Ordinarily, a company that showed such complete disdain for the normal rules of business would be vulnerable to competition, but Craigslist has no serious rivals. The glory of the site is its size and its price.” Wolfe and Wired seem exasperated by Newmark's and Ceo Jim Buckmaster's philosophy. "People are good and trustworthy and generally just concerned with getting through the day," Newmark says. Continues Wolfe, describing Newmark’s worldview: “If most people are good and their needs are simple, all you have to do to serve them well is build a minimal infrastructure allowing them to get together and work things out for themselves.” 

Craigslist’s 50 million users don’t seem to mind.

The Trafficking of Children

As for the giant, ongoing flap about Craigslist's Adult Services section: for reasons that seem to reflect how poorly our society deals with its fundamental problems, Craigslist is blamed for crimes committed by people who use their services.

Craigslist has broken no laws. Not only that, but the site has taken many significant steps to help law enforcement officials capture those who are selling stolen goods, causing physical harm, and engaging in illegal sex acts. Craigslist doesn’t actually have to do any of that, because they are not liable for what appears on the site (the 1996 Communications Decency Act immunizes providers from content posted by users) – but they choose to collaborate with law enforcement anyway. Nevertheless, legal officials and advocates continue to scapegoat Craigslist.

Craigslist is blamed for serious and intractable social problems like forced prostitution and child sex trafficking, stubborn and disconcerting problems that those actually responsible for making and enforcing laws can't solve – or perhaps have yet to find the will and resources to seriously try.

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