Science & Technology

The Craigslist Crack-Up


When Phillip Markoff was dubbed the "Craigslist Killer" for allegedly killing a woman after he found her sex ad on Craigslist, it was only a matter of time before authorities put even more pressure on the free classifieds website to comply with, well, anything they want.

According to the AFP, attorneys general from Missouri, New York, Connecticut, and Illinois met with Craigslist representatives today, in part, to "negotiate" the end of the websites' "Erotic Services" ads:

"Craigslist is allowing advertisements for illegal activities like prostitution on its site," [Missouri AG Chris Koster] said in a written release. "It is blatant. It is irresponsible. It is illegal."

California-based Craigslist has defended itself repeatedly against similar accusations.

In March, [website chief executive Jim Buckmaster] argued they were having laudable results in clamping down on sex ads on the Internet bulletin board….

Buckmaster's comments were in response to a move by county sheriff in Illinois that is suing the website for promoting prostitution with free classified ads that people use to offer sex for cash.

The sheriff is asking a federal judge to order Craigslist to shutter its "Erotic Services" section.

Buckmaster pledged that Craigslist will "vigorously" defend against the lawsuit.

"Craigslist is responsible for the types of advertisements it allows, and it is imperative that Craigslist agree to tougher restrictions and to remove ads for illegal activities from its site," Koster said. "We aim to stop this type of advertising in Missouri."

Actual, Craigslist is not responsible for user-generated content. Nor is Craigslist responsible for the "dangerous" arrangements that led to the young woman's death in the Markoff case–as state officials are implying and the media is milking. As Canuck Ivor Tossell said in the Globe and Mail:

Markoff allegedly answered her ad, later corresponding with her over e-mail and cellphone. It's hard to pin down exactly why the "Craigslist killer" nickname stuck, but it did. …it's certainly more assonant than "The Craigslist, then E-mail and Cellphone Killer." But judging by the way the case sparked a moral panic about Craigslist itself, the ready association people drew between the two words seems more than just phonetic….

It didn't take long for people to start pointing out the patently obvious: There is nothing about Craigslist that contributed to this crime. Connecting Craigslist to the actions of someone who answers an ad is as silly as blaming a newspaper for the actions of someone who answered an ad and did something terrible…

Why then, have attorneys, prosecutors–nay, everyone–gotten themselves in a panic?

It's not for the safety of erotic entrepreneurs; otherwise officials would do the responsible thing and decriminalize the activity. It's not because the social networking sites are a haven for predators. If a recent report concerning the sexual predation of minors is any indication, online predators are as much of a problem as the weirdoes lurking behind your local convenience store. And it's not the erotic advertising itself. As Tossell notes, sex ads are nothing new to fans of big city alt-weeklies.

So what gives? Well, Tossell reveals –perhaps unknowingly–the worry that gnaws at the hearts of good men everywhere:

…but while there's no connection between Craigslist and the crime, it does shoulder responsibility for the panic.

Craigslist has always walked a fine line between anarchy and grungy respectability. It made its name as the under-moderated, anything-goes website….

The libertine act comes at a price. Craigslist is a pile of contradictions that nobody knows quite how to read.

What seems to worry Tossell and others is that a website (read: business, community, etc.) has flourished without being regulated. No! Impossible! Tossell might not "quite know how to read" Craigslist's success, but I certainly do: Craiglist's users have an incentive to keep the website safe, accessible, and fair because those users receive the immediate benefits of a positive investment.

The unexpected death of even one person is terrible. It's also not to be entirely unexpected for a community that has more than 40 million participants every month. If Craigslist really is "irresponsible" and panic-inducing, then its greatest attribute would also be its demise. Users have the choice to unplug, or at very least say, "it's NOT ok to contact this poster with services or other commercial interests."  

Associate Editor Katherine Mangu-Ward has an interview with Craigslist founder Craig Newman here.