Scapegoating Craigslist Is Not Going to Solve the Problem of Underage Prostitution
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AG Blumenthal and His Fellow Attorney Generals' Embarrassing Ignorance of the Law
The most visible, and perhaps influential national law enforcement official going after Craigslist has been Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, who just happens to be running for the Senate. The Blumenthal candidacy is filled with hope for Democrats, who are desperate to hang on to a significant majority in the Senate. Chris Dodd, the incumbent, retired, presumably because he couldn't get reelected, paving the way for Blumenthal in a a super high priority race. Blumenthal also happens to be the candidate who has lied repeatedly about his service in Vietnam, claiming he was there during the war as a Marine, when he actually avoided the draft for 5 years, signing up at the last minute for the Marine Reserves when he became vulnerable to the draft. In the end he never left Washington, D.C .
Most recently Blumenthal, who has led overzealous AGs into battle against Craigslist many times, subpoenaed the company for information regarding their finances, dramatically declaring, "The Craigslist brothel business seems to be booming."
His tactics were questionable to say the least.
"The Attorney Generals' war on Craigslist is a"bit embarrassing," says Electronic Frontier Foundation lawyer Matthew Zimmerman, given that their position requires familiarity with existing laws. "They're engaging in an easy PR move where they get to look tough on crime. Problem with that is, it's not the law."
According to Zimmerman Craigslist is protected from liability even if they know that the content posted is illegal, and even if they profit from it. "The subpoena is a trumped up excuse to go in and harass Craigslist and continue to make their life difficult," says Zimmerman.
In 2008, Blumenthal sent a letter to Craigslist signed by 40 AGs demanding the site crack down on ads for illegal activities. After negotiations with Blumenthal, the company instituted several changes to combat illegal uses of the site: users would have to provide a working phone number and pay a 5-10 dollar fee with a valid credit card. Craigslist also agreed to collaborate with law enforcement and the National Center for Missing or Exploited Kids to help hunt down illegal traffickers.
The agreement did not dissuade Cook Country Sheriff Thomas Dart from suing Craigslist a mere 4 months later. Dart not only asked the court to shut down the "erotic services" (predecessor to “Adult Services”) section, but demanded the site pay the Sheriff department's $100,000 investigation into illegal activity on the site. U.S. District Court Judge John Grady was not impressed, throwing out the suit and saying that Craigslist was not to blame for users violating the site's policies.
Undeterred by precedent, South Carolina AG Henry McMaster decided to one-up Dart in May of 2009 by threatening to prosecute Craigslist executives if they refused to drop "erotic services". Craigslist CEO Jim Buckmaster replied in a blog post that McMaster's suit was baseless. Nevertheless, bowing to pressure after the highly publicized murder of a 26 year old massuesse who'd advertised on the site, Craigslist agreed to scrap Erotic Services and replace it with a new section called Adult Services that would be closely monitored for illegal content. McMaster wasn't satisfied, insisting he'd go ahead with his "investigation." When Craigslist slapped the AG with a counter-suit and a restraining order, McMaster improbably declared victory, saying the site would now adhere to higher standards.
Many advocates for exploited children and trafficking victims are fiercely fighting forced and under-aged prostitution any way they can.
But like the AGs, in order to get their issue in the news, to sound the alarm, to increase their fundraising potential, they primarily go after Craigslist. Amanda Kloer, an anti trafficking activist, who has a petition up at Change.org to pressure Craigslists about Adult Services, told AlterNet "Craigslist is by no means the only group that human trafficking victims are advertised through. The Washington Post still has huge sections of advertisements for Asian massage parlors that are shut down for trafficking. Yet WP hasn’t responded to requests to get rid of those ads. Backpage also run sex ads." So why focus on Craigslist?