Bullying Busybody for Senate

How Connecticut's attorney general beat Craigslist into submission


Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal may never have served in Vietnam (despite his recollections to the contrary), but he is a hero in the war on prostitution. Armed with nothing but sternly worded letters, indignant press releases, and a seemingly inexhaustible store of self-righteousness, Blumenthal played a key role in pressuring Craigslist to shut down its "adult services" section, which he called a "blatant Internet brothel."

On Friday night, the online classified ad service replaced the hyperlink to the controversial section with a black rectangle labeled "censored." If Blumenthal has anything to say about it (and you know he will), no one will ever pay for sex again.

Strictly speaking, prostitution is none of Blumenthal's business, and not just because consensual sex between adults, whether or not money changes hands, is beyond the proper scope of government. As Connecticut's Division of Criminal Justice explains on its website, the state's attorney general "has no jurisdiction whatsoever over criminal matters and no authority to prosecute criminal violations of the law."

Although fighting prostitution is not part of Blumenthal's portfolio as attorney general, it is part of his campaign for the U.S. Senate, in which he portrays himself as a crusader who is unafraid to challenge "the biggest special interests." With an estimated $122 million in revenue this year, Craigslist is not all that big, but it dominates the online classified ad business and runs one of the country's most popular websites.

Conflating prostitution with slavery and child rape, Blumenthal accused Craigslist of profiting from horrendous crimes. "We recognize that craigslist may lose the considerable revenue generated by the Adult Services ads" if it closes the section, Blumenthal and 16 other state attorneys general wrote in an August 24 letter to the company. "No amount of money, however, can justify the scourge of illegal prostitution, and the suffering of the women and children who will continue to be victimized, in the market and trafficking provided by craigslist."

Blumenthal ignores both the law's role in fostering coercion and violence by driving the business underground and the protection that services like Craigslist can provide by allowing prostitutes to screen customers and avoid walking the streets. But to fully appreciate the audacity of his charge that money blinded Craigslist to the suffering of sex slaves, note that the company started charging for adult service ads in 2008 at the behest of law enforcement officials. The idea was that fees would thin the section, while requiring a credit card and a valid phone number would deter criminal activity.

Craigslist also hired dozens of lawyers to screen ads for compliance with the company's terms of use, which prohibit "offer or solicitation of illegal prostitution." Craigslist CEO Jim Buckmaster reports that "more than 700,000 ads were rejected by those attorneys in the year following implementation of manual screening" in May 2009, while Village Voice Media's Backpage.com (where the ads are far more explicit) saw a big increase in business.

No doubt many of the masseuses, companions, and erotic dancers advertising on Craigslist were still selling sex, but they were a little more subtle about it, which is all that the law requires of such ads. Look up "massage," "escorts," or "entertainment adult" in a big-city phone book, and you will see ample evidence that Blumenthal's crusade is really a matter of taste.

As an "interactive computer service," Craigslist had no obligation to screen ads; under federal law, posters are exclusively responsible for such content. By taking precautions that were bound to be less than completely effective, the company invited further demands from bullying busybodies like Blumenthal, who deemed last week's capitulation merely a "step in the right direction."

The ads that offended Blumenthal already have begun migrating to other Craigslist sections (which are unscreened and generally free) or to less fastidious competitors. As company founder Craig Newmark remarked about a CNN ambush interview aimed at revealing him as a virtual pimp, "The point was what?"

Jacob Sullum is a senior editor at Reason and a nationally syndicated columnist.

© Copyright 2010 by Creators Syndicate Inc.