What the Attacks on Craigslist’s Adult Ads are Really About

What the Attacks on Craigslist's Adult Ads are Really About

Adult Ads Removed From Craigslist as Media Attacks Mount

Let me start with a disclosure: I hope to think that Craig Newmark is a friend. He can be as hard for me to read as James Joyce or C++. But I know him as a decent and genuine man who believes that he is bringing a service to millions of people, saving them billions of dollars that used to go to overpriced, monopolistic middlemen. He doesn’t do it to get rich (I’ve driven by his office and home and they ain’t palaces), which is precisely what bedevils those old middlemen; I’ve watched them try to break him and prove he’s greedy, too, and I’ve watched them fail. When I last had coffee with Craig in San Francisco (on the craigslist tab, I should disclose), he talked about the number of free ads craigslist has given people in terms of economic philanthropy, which is also what he said to my students at CUNY two years ago.

These days, Craig and the company he founded are being demonized in courts of political and media power as sex peddlers. The service – which Craig is quick to point out, he does not run; he means it when he says he is its customer-service representative – just took down its adult ads in the U.S., replacing the link with the word “censored.”

The argument has been that craigslist ads are used to serve human sex trafficking. Except craigslist has been openly and consistently helping police in their efforts to arrest traffickers. The adult ads were paid and more trackable than free personals on craigslist or ads in many other places online and in print. Now the trade, whatever its scale, is only more distributed. Gawker has a guide to post-craigslist paid sex and craigslist has pointed out that even eBay has sold party favors of another sort.

So why are government and media going after craigslist? The same reason, I think, that media and government in, for example, Germany are demonizing Google (even as the German people give Google its biggest market share anywhere in the world). They’re going after the disruptors, the biggest disruptors in sight.

Since craigslist and the internet have existed, newspaper classified revenue has fallen by $13 billion a year, leaving that money in the pockets of former advertiser-customers. Since Google and the internet have existed, many more billions have left traditional media as Google offered their former ad customers a better deal.

The New York Times today belittles craigslist’s censorship, calling it a “stunt” and “ploy” and labeling as “screeds” craisglist CEO Jim Buckmaster’s defenses of the service-and of free speech-against attorneys general and against ratings-starved CNN ambushing Craig. Nowhere does The Times disclose its own dead dog in this hunt, its loss of billions in classified revenue (in blogs, we’d be expected to, eh?). But the paper does acknowledge that the law is on craigslist’s side even if its enforcers are not and that this is a matter of free speech, which should put The Times and its journalists on craigslist’s side as well.

But they’re not. I’m not suggesting conspiracy; I rarely do. But I do see old power structures huddling together against the cold breath of technologists bringing change. At the Aspen Ideas Festival last summer, I asked Google’s Eric Schmidt whether we were going through a larger restructuring than a mere crisis. He replied that he wished we were but cautioned that, as I wrote then, too much of our resource, people, government help and attention go to the big, old legacy companies rather than supporting innovation (read: disruption). I would have translated that into the idea that instead of bailing out GM and subsidizing and artificially, temporarily propping up house and car prices, government should invest in bringing broadband to every door. I would have hoped that Schmidt might have agreed. Sadly, even he is now listing to the legacy. Google, the big boy, plays with other big boys.

But craigslist is still the weird kid. At the end of its story, The Times quotes someone saying that “Craigslist is not your typical company in the sense that it doesn’t seem to be exclusively motivated by profit.” What a strange, inscrutable child, it is. It’s easier to attack a company that doesn’t act like a company. And it’s easier to attack free speech and liberty when they – and dollars – are spent on nasty sex.

But this is a fight of old establishment power – business, media, and political – against new and disruptive technologists who are writing new rules. This is also a fight over freedom of speech. Last night, I woke up on the couch to see the end of The People vs. Larry Flynt. In this country, we protect bad speech to protect all speech.

Yes, prostitution is illegal. It long has been – the oldest laws cover the oldest profession – but the authorities have been blinking at ads for *cough* escort services in newspapers of many sorts for many years (here are the Village Voice’s adult ads). I’m headed to Berlin and Amsterdam in a few weeks, where prostitution is legal and regulated. Beyond exploitation of children – which every civilized person on earth abhors; as Mike Masnick says, the real enemy, not discussed in all this, is the trafficker – do we really want and need government regulating sex among free-willed adults? But that’s not the issue here. If it were, those attorneys general and CNN and The Times would be going after all those services Gawker lists and some newspapers, still.

No, the issue is disruption.

Cross posted at buzzmachine.com

Photo by David Sifry

Jeff Jarvis blogs about media and news at Buzzmachine.com. The author of What Would Google Do? (HarperCollins 2009), Jarvis is associate professor and director of the interactive journalism program at ...read more

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