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

Many critics say Craigslist, the classified advertising site, is being unfairly targeted by law enforcement officials.

Update:  According to CNET, South Carolina Attorney General Henry McMaster has apparently backed down on his threats against Craigslist

Just a few hours after Craigslist announces that it has filed a lawsuit against McMaster for making his threats and alleging managers of the site were in some responsible for ads for prostitution that have appeared on the site and attracted controversy, McMaster claimed victory... He suggested that it was he and his threats that prompted Craigslist to implement several changes, including setting up a system to review ads before they appear on the site's new "adult" section and do away with the "erotic" section.


Yesterday, after South Carolina Attorney General Henry McMaster asked that Craigslist remove its adult and erotic services sections, CEO Jim Buckmaster lashed out at McMaster on his blog:

Many prominent companies, including AT&T, Microsoft, and Village Voice Media, not to mention major newspapers and other upstanding South Carolina businesses feature more “adult services” ads than does craigslist, some of a very graphic nature... Have you fully considered the implications of your accusations against craigslist? What’s a crime for craigslist is clearly a crime for any company. Are you really prepared to condemn the executives of each of the mainstream companies linked above, and all the others that feature such ads, as criminals?

Buckmaster was furious, and by yesterday afternoon, support for Craigslist had poured in from all corners of the blogosphere. On one hand, the main issue here is culpability: are Buckmaster and other Craigslist employees effectively encouraging prostitution, as McMaster alleges? Or are they merely providing a platform for advertisers, as publications like the Village Voice and the Boston Phoenix have done for decades?

But first, a step back

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.

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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