By Jim Harper
On August 24th, the Attorneys General of 17 states sent a letter [PDF] to the founder and CEO of the Craigslist online platform, to “request” that they take down the “Adult Services” section of the site. The link to that section of the site now stands with a “CENSORED” label over the place where the link stood.
On the TechLiberationFront blog, Ryan Radia has a good write-up, including the legal protections Craigslist enjoys under federal law as a provider of an “interactive computer service.” The AGs undoubtedly know that could not directly shut down Craigslist. They wouldn’t have a legal leg to stand on if they attacked the site for the behavior of its users. But they also know that publically badgering Craigslist can win them political points and cut into the site’s image, profits, and ultimately, perhaps, viability. Several Attorneys General have doggedly asked Craigslist to patrol the behavior of its millions of users, never satisfied with the company’s efforts.
The turning point seems to have been a CNN “ambush” interview with Craigslist founder Craig Newmark in which reporter Amber Lyon sprung a terrific gotcha line, calling Craigslist “the Wal-Mart of online sex trafficking.” It’s a sound-bite with just enough truth: In a community of millions of people, there may be some such trafficking.
Newmark is an unusual character in any world, but especially in media and politics. He is meek, soft-spoken, and utterly guileless. A part of West-Coast tech’s recent interest in East-Coast government and politics, Newmark sought me ought a few months ago for a wide-ranging, ambling, and—for those reasons—charming chat.
Newmark was utterly caught off guard by the interview with the CNN reporter. The tape rolls through painfully awkward moments when Newmark remains simply silent or paces around, making him look stupid, mendacious, or both. (His comment on the interview is here, to which Lyon responds in the video linked above at “ambush.”)
The AGs smelled blood in the water. Their letter pounces on Craigslist and Craig Newmark’s inartful performance.
So the next step is the “CENSORED” block on Craigslist’s “Adult Services” section. Perhaps it’s meant to engender support for First Amendment rights, and to an extent it has. Early returns show support for Craigslist. But it may also create an expectation that large Web sites on which a tiny minority of people abuse speech rights to plan and execute crime may lose their speech protections themselves.
In case it needs pointing out, shutting down a Web site, or the portion of a Web site, on which people plan crime will only move crime to other places on the Internet. The cost to free speech in the AGs’ badgering of Craigslist vastly outweighs the infinitesimal crime-prevention benefit.
The Attorneys General sacrificing speech this way are: Richard Blumenthal (D) of Connecticut (a candidate for U.S. Senate), Dustin McDaniel (D) of Arkansas, Lawrence G. Wasden (R) of Idaho, Lisa Madigan (D) of Illinois, Tom Miller (D) of Iowa, Steve Six (D) of Kansas, Douglas F. Gansler (D) of Maryland, Mike Cox (R) of Michigan, Jim Hood (D) of Mississippi, Chris Koster (D) of Missouri, Michael A. Delaney (D) of New Hampshire, Richard Cordray (D) of Ohio, Patrick C. Lynch (D) of Rhode Island, Henry McMaster (R) of South Carolina, Robert E. Cooper, Jr. (D) of Tennessee, Greg Abbott (R) of Texas, and Kenneth T. Cuccinelli, II (R) of Virginia.