For quite some time now, we've been covering how various state attorneys general have been publicly grandstanding and threatening Craigslist, despite no actual legal basis. That grandstanding, of course, has "worked." It's resulted in Craigslist settling twice, and now shutting down the adult services section, leading those ads to migrate elsewhere actually helping
those responsible, and making it harder
for law enforcement to do its job. In testimony to Congress, Craigslist is pointing out that many of those other sites are not nearly as willing
to help law enforcement.
But there's another issue here. As Ryan Singel points out, this grandstanding campaign is really an attack on the rather important Section 230 safe harbors for online service providers
. Richard Blumenthal, who has led the attack, despite a lack of jurisdiction or legal basis
is currently running for Senate, and apparently is interested in changing Section 230. Singel asked Blumenthal first under what legal theory Craigslist was liable, and got back vague claims of how its failure to enforce its terms of service violated Connecticut consumer protection laws -- an incredibly weak claim unlikely to stand up to any scrutiny. But, more seriously, Singel asked about Section 230, and Blumenthal said the law "is outdated and needs revision."
"I support changes clarifying and strengthening the law to hold websites accountable when they knowingly enable or promote illegal activity."
Beware that "enable." Blumenthal wants to expand massive liability to internet services in a manner that would kill off significant innovation. Could you enable illegal activity via Google, Facebook, Twitter, Skype or many other popular internet services? You bet. Section 230 is designed to make sure the liability actually went to those responsible, not to the service providers and tools they used. Changing that is incredibly dangerous for innovation.
And, yet, as Single points out, these other companies haven't stepped up to support Craigslist in the grandstanding against them. Of course, the PR reasons are clear: no one wants to be in a position where critics could twist their words and misleadingly and falsely claim they "support" exploitation. But this is a big deal and in keeping quiet, bad things may happen:
The logical extension of what Blumenthal & Co say they want is a world where even they couldn't use Facebook, Twitter and Flickr to connect with their constituents, for fear that one of them (or their political enemies) would plant incriminating material they could then be sued over.
And even if they were successful, and didn't care about that consequences, would ads for prostitution disappear from the face of the earth? Not likely. The same ads that Craigslist is pilloried for dominate the back pages of alternative weeklies. The printed Yellow Pages carries ads for "Escort Services." You can find them in the Village Voice-owned Backpages.com. And beyond the media world, it's not very hard to find "Massage" parlors in any major U.S. city, where I'd venture to guess, you are more likely to find human-trafficking than you were anywhere on Craigslist. And back in the relative shadows from whence they came would only exploiters of women and children would only have more power.
The collateral damage of a wrong-headed pursuit Craigslist is an assault on the open internet itself.
Singel also points out, as we have in the past
, that the key point of grandstanding these days is on the revenue Craigslist made from these ads -- something that only started when these very same AGs forced Craigslist to start charging for the ads as part of an earlier settlement.
Singel wants to know why other internet companies aren't speaking up. Because the end result of letting Craigslist hang on its own on this topic is going to come back to haunt them. Already, in the same Congressional hearings today where Craigslist was attacked, those who pushed this damaging situation on the company are sharpening their knives for other internet companies
"Every pimp has a MySpace page," Frundt testified, adding that ads also show up on Backpages.com. "Every john uses a john board and posts information on where to buy children."
"This has been going on for many years. We must do something about our children being sold on the internet."
Indeed! We absolutely must do something -- but the something we should do is use these tools to go after and stop those actually responsible
rather than pushing them around the internet, and blaming the tools they use. That doesn't stop the activity. It doesn't protect the exploited. It doesn't help the situation. It creates a false target, and a situation in which the very principles on which the internet has been built get undermined, at a potentially huge cost to innovation, communication and free speech.