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Craigslist and crime

Craigslist’s vast network of classified-ad websites has been a boon not just to bargain hunters but also to criminals searching for victims. The San Francisco-based company has been linked to a wide range of crimes in recent years, from petty thefts to grisly murders. The most recent was a rape in Wyoming allegedly orchestrated by the victim’s ex-boyfriend, a former Marine in Twentynine Palms. The 27-year-old mechanic is accused of placing an ad on Craigslist purportedly from a woman seeking “a real aggressive man with no concern for women.” He allegedly continued the impersonation in e-mails and instant messages, enticing a 26-year-old Wyoming man to the victim’s house to engage in abusive, humiliating sex.

The incident brought more scrutiny to Craigslist, which stopped taking ads for “erotic services” last May under pressure from several state attorneys general. The company replaced the erotic services section with “adult services” listings that must be approved in advance by Craigslist (ostensibly to bar pitches for prostitution and other illegal activities) and paid for (creating a commercial paper trail). Yet the attack in Wyoming led some critics to suggest that Craigslist wasn’t monitoring such posts closely enough. “If a woman is putting an ad online saying she’d like to be raped, I’d hope it would be stopped,” said a spokesman for an Illinois sheriff who’d tried in vain to hold Craigslist liable for publishing solicitations by prostitutes.

Craigslist’s popularity and breadth make it attractive to the seamy elements of society, as well as to fringe groups of all types. But despite the headline-grabbing nature of some of the crimes linked to the site, it makes sense to shield the company from liability for what gets posted on its site, as the Communications Decency Act currently does. Bear in mind that there are many outlets besides Craigslist where people can publish fraudulent come-ons in relative anonymity, such as alternative newspapers and Internet newsgroups. But the information Craigslist collects from those who post ads can provide better leads to investigators than they might obtain from, say, a newspaper that accepts cash for classifieds.

More important, society has much to gain from encouraging companies to create venues for people to speak and collaborate freely. Holding sites liable for the wrongs done by a tiny percentage of users could make it impossible to build low-cost services that can grow rapidly in value to the public. Websites would instead have to maintain large staffs to keep tight control on what users published, reducing customers’ freedom to air their views and participate in the culture. It’s better to encourage users to police Craigslist by reporting material that crosses the line than to have Craigslist try to police them.

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