Craigslist, The Post, and Freedom
You’ve probably heard that recently, after many long ordeals and forceful requests by various state attorneys general, Craigslist finally shut down its adult services ads.
Many people wrongly believe that the pressure against Craigslist was related only to prostitution, and thus are angered by the presumed attempt to censor an act that some activists think should be legalized. In actuality, the adult services section was also being used by traffickers to sell enslaved women.
And so, to the joy of modern abolitionists everywhere, the site will likely no longer be a hub for the trafficking of women and children against their wills. (In related news, the site might not be such a hub for web traffic anymore either, since a huge percentage of their income and site visits were for the adult services section.)
On top of that news, last week The Washington Post announced that they will no longer allow any advertising for massage parlors.
Like Craigslist, The Post has been routinely criticized for allowing ads by companies that were later found to be connected to trafficking. Also like Craigslist, the paper has put together attempts to solve the problem. The paper began requiring that all massage parlor ads come with proof of a valid business license, but over time law enforcement found that such filters were not working.
Small brothels run by traffickers who force the women and children to work there against their wills commonly use massage and spa ads as a cover. They force the victims to prostitute themselves and manipulate them through debt bondage, threats of gang violence, or abuse of their families if they don’t comply.
Because of the prevalence of these criminal groups and their constant attempts at using print media to advertise, other large metropolitan papers – The New York Times, The Chicago Tribune, The LA Times and The Boston Globe – have long since abandoned the ads in question. The Washington Post is late to the party.
So what does this mean for Craigslist, The Post, and our culture in general?
It mean that media, the government, law enforcement and regular citizens are finally waking up to the prevalence and horror of the crime of human trafficking. These recent decisions have spotlighted the issue in a rare and useful way – creating a healthy discourse about the roles of men, media and the government in fighting exploitation.
It also means a loss of income, especially for Craigslist, which made most of its profits from the adult services section.
And it means that perfectly legitimate companies working in massage therapy or spa services look suspicious at best and are completely unable to advertise at worst. Something that might seem like a small problem if taken out of context, but is a rather large one in the discussion of free press.
The media in general doesn’t seem to want to fight back too hard against activists seeking more regulation. They don’t want to appear to give the cold shoulder to trafficking victims or look like they care more about the almighty dollar. But they also must see the connection between these pressures and censorship. In fact, when Craigslist first announced their shutting down of the adult services section, they cited the cause as “censored”.
The most common criticism is that for every closed Craigslist adult services section, a new and more corrupt, unmonitored website will open up. It is, critics argue, impossible to shut down human trafficking online without shutting down the freedom of the internet, and thus freedom of the press with it. Every site would have to be monitored, and who would do the monitoring besides some large overseeing body – aka, the federal government.
Also, cutting out all adult ads might push the criminal groups further underground. People seeking out such services will have to look harder, yes, but they might have to start looking in places that are very private and protected from the public eye.
In contrast, on Craigslist or in a national newspaper, it is fathomable that authorities could monitor groups better and work undercover with relative ease to stop trafficking.
In fact, abolitionist groups had already begun doing counter-trafficking work of this nature by placing fake underage ads on Craigslist in order to attract Johns (the adult services clients), of whom they could ask questions in order to research the demand side of trafficking. Law enforcement had, in a few cases, broken up criminal groups by following the trail to the massage parlors advertising in The Post.
These partnerships might be a more effective response to the human trafficking problem than what Craigslist and The Post have been pressured to do. They, as very public media with a unique attraction to traffickers, could lure the criminals out, and help put them away.
Activists opposed to the adult services section argue that this approach would allow for children and women to be trafficked first, and rescued second. They would rather the crime be prevented in the first place.
Most people would. Most critics are not advocating that the girls be exploited in order to be protected. But should we be more realistic? Most of us have looked at Google and know the power of an internet search in finding all sorts of horrible things – and we’re not even criminals.
The world wide web is exactly that – a web, a sticky place. Perhaps we could use it for what webs are made for: to catch vermin.
Here’s the alternative viewpoint, from The Rebecca Project, who has fought hard against Craigslist. What do you think? Do you think that Craigslist and The Post have made the right choice? Or is it more effective to do something else?