If the lawsuit, filed by the Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, succeeds, Craigslist will be forced to follow the same rules newspapers do in their classified advertising listings, screening each ad to make sure no antidiscrimination laws are violated. That means ads like the ones the lawyers’ group said it spotted on Craigslist in a six-month investigation would be banned.
But here’s the problem: When we had a small number of centralized repositories of ads — gatekeepers — it was easy to impose this kind of regulation. It is possible, though expensive and ineffective and inefficient, to do so with online gatekeepers.
But it is impossible to clamp down on such speech the distributed world, where I can post an ad on my blog and it can be found via Edgeio or Oodle or Google. Then who are you going to sue? The search engines for finding it? The enablers for providing the functionality to me? Or me for exercising free, albeit inappropriate, speech? The control is at the edges and it’s much harder to regulate the edges.
(Full dislosure: Craig Newmark is a personal investor in the news startup I’m working on.)