The fight to end sex trafficking may not immediately call Craigslist to mind, but the online advertising site reacted immediately to newly passed legislation aimed at curbing sex trafficking online. As a result, Craigslist personals are gone. The company announced it would shutter all its "Personals" sections after Congress decided this week that third-party websites do share some legal responsibility where sex trafficking is concerned.
In its brief statement, Craigslist referenced the House's version of the bill, known as the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA), and wrote that "any tool or service can be misused. We can't take such risk without jeopardizing all our other services, so we are regretfully taking craigslist personals offline."
The FOSTA legislation is an amendment to section 230 of the Communications Act of 1934. Since the 1990s, websites with third-party advertisers have invoked "CDA 230," which was passed during the Great Depression, as legal cover for content posted by advertisers that might be illegal.
Human rights activists have been raising the alarm about CDA 230 over the past decade. The law has been used to shield companies from legal liability for the child victims of sex trafficking who may be advertised on their sites. The 2017 documentary I Am Jane Doe follows several court cases brought by child sex trafficking victims against Village Voice Media, which hosted a website that accepted ads for sex. In every case, across multiple states, these sex trafficking victims ultimately lost because of CDA 230.
This isn't the first time Craigslist has shut down part of its site in response to concerns about sex trafficking. The company's director of customer and law enforcement relations, William Clinton Powell, appeared before the House Judiciary Committee in 2010. In response to over a dozen calls from state attorneys general to shut down the site's "adult services" section, Powell told the committee, "Craigslist discontinued its adult services section on Sept. 3, 2010, and there are no plans to reinstate the category."
As a result, Craigslist lost the advertisers who paid $10 per post in that adult services section. At the time, the consulting firm AIM Group estimated the move cost the company $44 million for that year alone. Sex advertising is a big business for Backpage, which is a Craigslist competitor. That site, which was the focus of I Am Jane Doe, still runs sex ads and has made hundreds of millions of dollars doing so. It's estimated that 90 percent of sex trafficking victims are advertised on Backpage.
Critics argue that sex trafficking victims will now be advertised on a larger network of sites, making it harder to find the children being abused. Backpage legal counsel Liz McDougall told the Washington Post that the site's intolerance for sex trafficking and willingness to work with law enforcement meant "Backpage is one of the best places in America to get busted trafficking a child.”
But Sheriff Tom Dart of Cook County, Illinois, disagrees. He told the Post, "If they were calling [him] saying ‘We’ve found a pattern’ or something like that," maybe he'd believe Backpage was helping.
"But I’ve never received a phone call from them,” he said.
Others are concerned that FOSTA will "ruin the internet," as Rhett Jones at Gizmodo put it in a recent headline. Jones is concerned that the language in FOSTA (or SESTA, as the Senate's version of the bill is called) will lead to companies heavily censoring speech on their platforms. He also cites the possibility that smaller competitor sites, which don't have huge budgets to pay for legal representation, won't stand a chance against internet behemoths like Google and Facebook.
Craigslist seemed to shore up Jones' point with its Friday announcement that it was shutting down its personals section altogether. It remains to be seen if other companies will do the same.