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Could Craigslist killer, racy ads get Web site in more legal hot water?

Craigslist CEO: Creating better filters but not looking to remove controversial category

April 24, 2009 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - With the so-called Craigslist killer making daily headlines, experts are debating whether the online classified advertising company could face legal charges that its site facilitates prostitution. The company already faces a lawsuit on such charges in an Illinois federal court.

The debate intensified earlier this week after Boston University medical student Philip Markoff was arrested and arraigned for allegedly murdering one woman and kidnapping and assaulting another -- both of whom he found in erotic services ads on Craigslist. The attacks and subsequent arrest have put the spotlight on a Web site that lets people post ads for everything from old sofas and bicycles to escort services and massages.

But while some say that Craigslist, which does publish personal safety tips on its site, succeeds in being a free and open marketplace, others say some of the ads under its "Erotic Services" category go too far legally. And the question, since prostitution and advertising for such services are illegal in most states, is whether Craigslist Inc. could find itself in legal hot water.

Seems Cook County Sheriff Thomas J. Dart would think so.

Last month, Dart filed suit in U.S. District Court against the owners of Craigslist, accusing them of knowingly promoting and facilitating prostitution. This came just four months after the Web site settled a national lawsuit and vowed to set up safeguards to restrict some postings on the Web site.

"Craigslist is the single largest source of prostitution in the nation," contended Dart, who is asking a federal court to order Craigslist to eliminate its "Erotic Services" section. "Missing children, runaways, abused women and women trafficked in from foreign countries are routinely... being pimped on Craigslist."

Jim Buckmaster, CEO of Craigslist, calls the sheriff's charges "baseless" and says that the company works hard to filter out advertisements for prostitution.

"The Erotic Services category was added at the request of our users who were seeing ads for escort services and massage parlors and they wanted them placed under a single category under a warning screen," Buckmaster told Computerworld. "It's intended only for legal businesses to post, and anything illegal is not wanted there and is removed by staff."

He added that Craigslist has no plans to remove the Erotic Services category from the Web site.

While some of the ads in that category include nude photos and list hourly rates, Buckmaster said they are not necessarily advertising illegal services. "There's nothing illegal about charging by the hour," he said. "I would encourage you to do some research on what constitutes an ad soliciting sex in exchange for money."

V. Grady O'Malley, an assistant U.S. attorney in New Jersey, said there's a very good chance that Craigslist is under some pressure right now to better police or even get rid of its Erotic Services category.



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