By Brennon Slattery, PC WorldThe Cook County, Illiniois sheriff's department is gunning to shut down the "Erotic Services" segment of popular classifieds site Craigslist, claiming the little Web site that could facilitates and enables prostitution. Sheriff Tom Dart wants the ninth most popular Web site to close the shutters on Erotic Services forever and accept responsibility for being "the single largest source of prostitution in the nation."
But is Craigslist really breaking the law, or is it simply dartboard fodder for a dangerously conservative political movement that could stifle freedom on the Internet?
In order to deserve the moniker "pimp," Craigslist must profit from its participation in prostitution. Craigslist does not. Late last year the Web site began charging for ads placed in the Erotic Services section and required ID verification. All proceeds culled from the transaction were donated to charities. But a loophole has been found, and many prostitution busts have stemmed from non-paying posts, meaning the ads were featured in the ordinary personals section -- masked as individuals seeking those who are "generous$" -- or hidden somewhere else on the site.
Asking or offering for money to perform sexual deeds, of course, is technically prostitution, and according to state and federal laws, those guilty of this crime should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law; but does that redden Craigslist's hands with guilt as well?
Craigslist isn't standing by idly and watching illicit activities take place under its nose, and it never has. "Misuse of the site is exceptionally rare compared to how much the site is used for legal purposes," Susan MacTavish Best, a Craigslist spokeswoman, said in the statement. "Regardless, any misuse of the site is not tolerated." Craigslist makes a point to slather its site with warnings and legal statements. It also dutifully removes illegal postings that are brought to the organization's attention. In effect, Craigslist does more to assist law enforcement when it comes to illegal activity than it does to facilitate or embolden its purveyors. A CNET article details Craigslist's cooperation with police and highlights the many lawful deeds the Web site has done over the years -- a record ignored by Sheriff Dart's accusations.
Given the accessibility and openness of the Internet, and the various channels in which one can advertise flesh for sale, it has become increasingly difficult to stop the practice. Online solicitation for prostitution is a major concern in our modern age. Some may see Craigslist as opening its doors to such services, and feeding the fire rather than putting it out. It's my opinion that no matter what one Web site does, another is going to do it better, so stopping one site that actually assists the law will only give rise to more advanced, sneaky methods.
One of the eye-opening disclosures for non-techies from the Eliot Spitzer case was that Spitzer hired his prostitutes from the Web site "Emperor's Club VIP." Yes, this is not a world in which one finds illegal activity on a street corner or via the back section of weekly newspapers -- this is the Internet age. If it's not on a paid Web site, it's on Craigslist. If not there, then MySpace. If not there, it's somewhere, and you can count on that. Prostitution is called the oldest profession because, in part, it's unstoppable.
Closing down a section of Craigslist infringes on the freedom of the Internet. Such a move symbolizes not only a country taking a broad moral stance, but also one willing to blind itself from legitimate, Constitutional freedoms for the misguided and impossible purposes of cleansing a nation. Craigslist has cooperated with law enforcement and should be commended for its efforts. While more may possibly be done to pop illegal services ballooning on the Internet, it's more important to focus on prevention of abuse than impose outright censorship, for such a move could have potentially far-reaching, and dangerous, ramifications.