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McMaster declares victory; backs down in Craigslist case (Updated)

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Craigslist first came under fire after the arrest of the so-called "Craigslist killer," who allegedly found his victims online. Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal called Craigslist a "blatant Internet brothel" the armchair pundits duly piled on.

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Under serious duress, on May 13, Craigslist agreed to take down its "erotic services" vertical, a move that was lauded by Blumenthal as proof that "[Craigslist] is heeding our clear call for conscience and common sense, sending a strong signal that Internet sites must police themselves to protect others.”

The bigger question

But there's a bigger problem at play here, say many critics, and it has to do with a misunderstanding of the way the Web works. As Jeff Jarvis wrote recently on his blog, Web communities do not need to be policed externally. Instead, they often police themselves, and more successfully than their print counterparts. "[This] episode," Jarvis argues, "only shows the gap between the law and the community." He continues:

Craigslist’s community does police itself against the things that matter to it: fraud, spam, trolls. That’s how craigslist’s founder, Craig Newmark, spends his days, in customer service: policing against the things that bother and matter to his community. But sex? Who gives a damn? Clearly, the community doesn’t think it needs to be protected from that. So who are these cops protecting and from what?

Not so fast

Many disagree, of course – and they're not all elected officials. In a Wall Street Journal piece titled "Craigslist Case Points to Perils of Self-Policing," reporter Geoffrey A. Fowler points to the world's "largest population of Internet users." China, he writes, is accustomed to restrictions:

The [Chinese] government, with the aid of compliant companies, actively polices Web sites for pornographic, illegal and politically sensitive content. That "Great Firewall" system has been criticized as a human-rights violation, but 80% of Chinese respondents to a 2007 survey by the Pew Internet & American Life Project said they thought the Internet should be managed or controlled -- and 85% said they think the government should be responsible for doing it.

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