Craigslist under fire over erotic ads

Murder and assaults in Boston prompt changes in the online advertising company.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Craigslist is expected to soon make it more difficult to advertise erotic services like prostitution and pornography on its website.

The online classified ads community, which has dominated tabloid headlines since the arrest of the so-called "Craigslist killer" in Boston Monday, now is working on initiatives designed to make it more difficult to post erotic photos. And it may institute penalties for individuals who violate the website's stated policies and ethical standards.

The move comes in response to a letter from Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal (D), who this week urged Craigslist to immediately ban photos from its "erotic services" section, hire staff to screen postings of images that blatantly violate the terms of use, and implement significant credit card penalties for such violations.

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"These signature steps can stop ads that lead to horrific brutal tragedy such as the Boston murder, as well as other violent crime, human trafficking, or exploitation of children," Mr. Blumenthal said in a statement. "Craigslist has the means – and moral obligation – to stop the pimping and prostituting in plain sight."

Earlier this week, police arrested Philip Markoff, a Boston University Medical School student, and charged him with the murder of Julissa Brisman, a masseuse from Manhattan. Police say Mr. Markoff used Craigslist to set up a massage appointment with her at a Boston hotel, then bound, robbed, and killed her. Markoff is suspected in several other Craigslist-related attacks and one other murder as well.

In response to concerns raised by the murder and the request from Blumenthal, Craigslist chief executive officer Jim Buckmaster said he agrees, "there is more work to be done, not just by Craigslist but by all Internet-based services, working cooperatively with law-enforcement officials to eliminate illegitimate activity to the greatest extent possible."

The company shares Blumenthal's concerns, he added, and is working on several initiatives that "speak" to them and will have "more to say in the days and weeks ahead."

This is not the first time Craigslist has had to tackle an abuse of its website. Last year, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) found pictures of missing children in advertisements in the site's "erotic services" section.

"When we started finding missing kids whose pictures were being used on Craigslist as parts of commercial sex ads, it was pretty clear that things were out of control," says Ernie Allen, president and cofounder of NCMEC.

Last November, Craigslist entered into an agreement with 40 state attorneys general and NCMEC. As a result, the site now requires anyone who posts an erotic ad to have a working phone number and a valid credit card. It also agreed to provide that information to law-enforcement officials when subpoenaed, to deploy tracking technology to help identify missing persons, and to "explore" technology that could be used to block pornographic images.

"The initial agreement wasn't a panacea," says Mr. Allen. "But we are grateful for the steps that Craigslist has taken. They've responded in a serious manner, and it's having a positive impact. But clearly ... the problem hasn't been solved, and there may be additional steps that could be taken."

Since the agreement, postings to the "erotic services" section of Craigslist have dropped significantly, according to Allen. But other observers note that the "casual encounters" section, designed for people interested in meeting, has now become a center of much illicit activity.

But instead of outright offers to exchange sex for money, many ads use code words like "roses" for dollars and "420" to indicate marijuana. It's also common to find blatantly pornographic pictures with some of the ads.

Such postings violate Craigslist's terms of use, and that's why Blumenthal says penalties should be assessed for such blatant violations.

"Enforcement must be matched with prevention – powerful financial penalties, charged to credit cards when users defy Craigslist's prohibition against porn and prostitution," Blumenthal said. "Proceeds can fund incentive payments to users who report wrongdoing – encouraging all Craigslist users to join the fight. Money is a powerful weapon and incentive in crime-fighting."

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