NYTimes Columnist Stirs Up A Controversy That Will Only Drive Human Trafficking Further Underground

from the dangerous-ideas dept

You may recall a couple years ago that a bunch of politicians, led by state Attorneys General, went on a huge grandstanding campaign against Craigslist, because some people were using Craigslist for prostitution -- including some human trafficking. As we noted at the time (repeatedly), Craigslist was incredibly cooperative with law enforcement, and smart law enforcement officials actually used Craigslist as a tool to help discover, track down and arrest those who were breaking the law. But, rather than recognize that Craigslist was a useful tool, a huge media campaign was set off, leading Craigslist to shut down its "adult services" section, despite plenty of legal uses.

Of course, exactly as we predicted, the people who were previously using Craigslist for illegal reasons didn't magically disappear. They just shifted to other sites. One popular one was Backpage, owned by Village Voice Media, publishers of the famed alternative newspaper The Village Voice. Unlike Craigslist, Backpage told the grandstanders that it wouldn't back down. It noted that it cooperates with law enforcement, and that it understands the law and why it's not liable for the actions of its users. A lawsuit filed against the company resulted in Backpage being declared legal.

You would think, maybe, that the media and the granstanders would get the message. But, no, they just keep at it. Nicholas Kristoff at the NY Times recently posted a ridiculously silly column, which first "outs" Goldman Sachs as a minority investor in Village Voice Media (leading GS to sell all its shares before the article went to press, despite it having nothing to do with how the company operates), and then goes on to insist that the owners of the site must be "held accountable."

This is, to put it plainly, stupid. Kristof even acknowledges that the real way to stop human trafficking and underage prostitution is to have "prosecutors... focus more on pimps and johns." You know how they can do that? By using sites like Backpage to collect evidence and to find out who's actually responsible. But, immediately after that, Kristof insists that:
Closing down the leading Web site used by traffickers would complicate their lives, and after so many years of girls being trafficked on this site, it’s time to hold owners accountable.
That's ridiculous. Two years ago, we were told that the "leading website used by traffickers" was Craigslist. And the same sort of idiotically short-sighted campaign closed down that part of the service, and it did nothing to complicate the traffickers lives, because they quickly moved on to a variety of other platforms, including some that don't cooperate nearly as closely with law enforcement as Craigslist did (and Backpage does today). If Backpage is pressured into stopping adult ads, then the traffickers will move on to other sites within hours -- and many will be less willing to cooperate. Blaming the service provider isn't just stupid and pointless, it's counterproductive. It's helping the very people that the grandstanders claim to be targeting.

It's really quite sickening. The best way to stop these awful acts is to go after those responsible. Adding some ridiculous (and probably unconstitutional) secondary liability to third parties doesn't help. It makes the problem worse. Kristof and others may have good intentions, but their simple (and confounding) inability to think more than a single step ahead is really disappointing. In an effort to do good, they're causing a tremendous amount of harm. Not only that, but they're advocating to set an awful precedent when it comes to secondary liability, taking away the basic principle that you don't blame the tool, you blame the person who actually is breaking the law. Kristof is an award-winning journalist, and clearly a very smart person. That he'd be so short-sighted on something like this -- and stoop to the level of trying to drag other companies through the mud -- is immensely disappointing.

Filed Under: law enforcement, nicholas kristoff, prostitution
Companies: backpage, craigslist, new york times, village voice media

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  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 5 Apr 2012 @ 11:05am

    "The best way to stop these awful acts is to go after those responsible. "

    Mike, while I appreciate the sentiment of your post, I have to say that you really seem to be missing the boat here.

    Human trafficking happens regardless of the promotional mediums that are available. However, just like many other illegal acts, they spread more rapidly and expand their scope when they are able to operate in the daylight.

    You have to understand that, just like drug rings, these are not flat organizations. You don't have the guy doing the importing selling the product on the street corner. What happens in public (or in this case on CL) is just the equivalent of a street corner drug dealer, nothing more. That guy is so far down the chain, that you could arrest 1000 of him and still not change the situation one iota. This is a situation that has often been discussed here on Techdirt.

    The problem of open, public anything is that it encourages people who might not otherwise engage in the services to do so. When there are tons of prostitution ads available, and plenty of activity going on in the public eye, those who might have only considered it as a fantasy might actually take part. They might enjoy it and come back again and again (human nature). The demand for these trafficked girls gets larger, and more of them are dragged in as a result.

    There is no simple answer to any of this. However, taking the product out of the public eye, making it harder to find new clients, working to lower demand... those are all things that can hurt the market and change the way things happen.

    Allowing the ads and then acting won't do much, you take out another greedy ass low level pimp, who gets replaced by another one 10 minutes later. You may even waste much of your time hitting legit girls who are just doing this stuff for money. You can waste a ton of time trying to whack the mole. You just don't get the sorts of results you are looking for.

    The CL ads disappearing doesn't cure the problem, nobody is suggesting it does. It does however work to perhaps change the public perception of these types of services, and make them less tempting to those undecided potential customers.

    The real answer? I don't think there is any one solid solution, but certainly making the "product" less desirable and less accessible has to have ripples through the entire system.

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