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Craigslist Faces Scrutiny After Crimes

With the so-called Craigslist killer making daily headlines, experts are debating whether the online classified advertising firm could face legal trouble for allegedly allowing the site to promote prostitution. The online classified advertising firm is already facing a lawsuit in an Illinois federal court accusing it of facilitating prostitution.

The debate intensified earlier this week after a Boston University medical student, Philip Markoff, was arrested and arraigned earlier this week 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 selling old sofas and bicycles, along with 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 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, vowing 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."

Assistant U.S. Attorney V. Grady O'Malley 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.

"Could a persuasive prosecutor convince a jury that they're ads for prostitution? I believe so," said O'Malley, who is not involved in any investigations into Craigslist. "Are they loaded up for a civil suit? I believe so. Are the families of these two or three women [who were allegedly targeted by Markoff] loading up right now to file civil charges? I believe so. Is a criminal charge that far away? If you get an aggressive U.S. Attorney's office who wants to put a stop to this type of stuff, they'll drop a grand jury subpoena on the CEO of Craigslist."

O'Malley added that if Craigslist is running any ads for prostitution, a prosecutor could charge that the Web site essentially acting as a so-called "pimp." "These women get the vehicle in which to provide their services and Craigslist gets ... a benefit from it," he said.

Ken van Wyk, principal consultant at KRvW Associates LLC in Alexandria, Va., defended Craigslist, noting that its policy of being whatever users want it to be - is part of what works about Craigslist.

"Craigslist is the metaphor of a flea market that has scaled with the Internet," he said. "Don't blame Craigslist for what people are selling. That leads to extra cost to running Craigslist. That's an enormous time sink for everybody. I don't fault them for retaining a hands-off approach to that kind of policy."

Van Wyk also said he hopes Craigslist doesn't rethink its policies about what kinds of ads it will accept. "I think that there's value to a free and open market place like that. There's going to be some abuse of it, certainly. You do what you do and they'll give you a place to run your flea market. The community needs a sort of service like that and it works well when it works. The fact that it has encouraged an under market of all sorts of illicit things is inevitable," he said.

Buckmaster noted that Craigslist makes itself available to help in law enforcement investigations, though he said he could not say if they helped the Boston Police Department with its investigation into Markoff.

"It's an opportunity to remind would-be criminals that Craigslist is an unwise venue because they're going to be apprehended if they use Craigslist for a crime," he added. "They leave behind a digital trail or digital fingerprint. They're creating loads of evidence that will be used to find them, identify them and prosecute them."

He said developers at Craigslist are working on additional blocking and filtering technologies to keep inappropriate content off the site.

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