How Censoring Craigslist Helps Pimps, Child Traffickers and Other Abusive Scumbags
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For the last 12 years, I've dedicated immense amounts of time, money and energy to end violence against women and children. As a victim of violence myself, I'm deeply committed to destroying any institution or individual leveraging the sex-power matrix that results in child trafficking, nonconsensual prostitution, domestic violence and other abuses. If I believed that censoring Craigslist would achieve these goals, I'd be the first in line to watch them fall. But from the bottom of my soul and the depths of my intellect, I believe that the current efforts to censor Craigslist's "adult services" achieves the absolute opposite. Rather than helping those who are abused, it fundamentally helps pimps, human traffickers and others who profit off of abusing others.
On Friday, under tremendous pressure from US attorneys general and public advocacy groups, Craigslist shut down its "Adult Services" section. There is little doubt that this space has been used by people engaged in all sorts of illicit activities, many of which result in harmful abuses. But the debate that has ensued has centered on the wrong axis, pitting protecting the abused against freedom of speech. What's implied in public discourse is that protecting potential victims requires censorship; thus, anti-censorship advocates are up in arms attacking regulators for trying to curtail First Amendment rights. While I am certainly a proponent of free speech online, I find it utterly depressing that these groups fail to see how this is actually an issue of transparency, not free speech. And how this does more to hurt potential victims than help.
If you've ever met someone who is victimized through trafficking or prostitution, you'll hear a pretty harrowing story about what it means to be invisible and powerless, feeling like no one cares and no one's listening. Human trafficking and most forms of abusive prostitution exist in a black market, with corrupt intermediaries making connections and offering "protection" to those who they abuse for profit. The abused often have no recourse, either because their movements are heavily regulated (as with those trafficked) or because they're violating the law themselves (as with prostitutes).
The Internet has changed the dynamics of prostitution and trafficking, making it easier for prostitutes and traffickers to connect with clients without too many layers of intermediaries. As a result, the Internet has become an intermediary, often without the knowledge of those internet service providers (ISPs) who are the conduits. This is what makes people believe that they should go after ISPs like Craigslist. Faulty logic suggests that if Craigslist is effectively a digital pimp who's profiting off of online traffic, why shouldn't it be prosecuted as such?
The problem with this logic is that it fails to account for three important differences: 1) most ISPs have a fundamental business -- if not moral -- interest in helping protect people; 2) the visibility of illicit activities online makes it much easier to get at, and help, those who are being victimized; and 3) a one-stop-shop is more helpful for law enforcement than for criminals. In short, Craigslist is not a pimp, but a public perch from which law enforcement can watch without being seen.
1. Internet Services Providers have a fundamental business interest in helping people.
When Internet companies profit off of online traffic, they need their clients to value them and the services they provide. If companies can't be trusted -- especially when money is exchanging hands -- they lose business. This is especially true for companies that support peer-to-peer exchange of money and goods. This is what motivates services like eBay and Amazon to make it very easy for customers to get refunded when ripped off. Craigslist has made its name and business on helping people connect around services, and while there are plenty of people who use its openness to try to abuse others, Craigslist is deeply committed to reducing fraud and abuse. It's not always successful -- no company is. And the more freedom that a company affords, the more room for abuse. But what makes Craigslist especially beloved is that it is run by people who truly want to make the world a better place and who are deeply committed to a healthy civic life.