The craigslist (read: internet) witchhunt

The internet – in the form of the latest kerfuffle over craigslist – is exposing an anachronism of law in society.

I’ve seen reference lately to attorneys general and law-enforcement officials saying that the craigslist community policing itself isn’t enough. Said the Wall Street Journal: “Some large Internet communities are coming to a controversial conclusion: the Web can’t always police itself.” That’s why, they argue, they need to swoop in to save us from sex.

But the truth is that this episode only shows the gap between the law and the community. Craigslist’s community does police itself against the things that matter to it: fraud, spam, trolls. That’s how craigslist’s founder, Craig Newmark, spends his days, in customer service: policing against the things that bother and matter to his community. But sex? Who gives a damn? Clearly, the community doesn’t think it needs to be protected from that. So who are these cops protecting and from what?

That’s a fascinating aspect of the culture of the internet: It shows what really matters to a community and what does not matter and that, in turn, reveals how out of touch laws and those who make and enforce them can be. Craigslist is a society and it has its own laws and means of enforcement.

Can the law, like media, still be one-size-fits-all? Well, of course, to some extent, it must be. We need consistent laws across society that define everything from fraud to murder; tat is the foundation of society. But within a society there are other societies. And so, in the U.K., there have long been religious courts that deal with disputes in the Jewish and Muslim communities. The laws of society still stand over them (thank God) and members of the community retain the right to call on those laws. Online, we also have communities that cut across borders and have their own rules of behavior. Indeed, even games become societies with laws and consequences. As Lawerence Lessig famously said, code is law, for it prescribes behavior exactly. Laws come into conflict with laws.

And so, once again, the internet becomes a threat to the control and power of an elite and they are exploiting craiglist – and the murderer who used it – to reassert their control. But it has the marks of a witchhunt. Craigslist’s blog this weekend writes about the attorney general of South Carolina going after it even though craigslist promotes these supposed sins less than others. The blog says: “And FWIW, telephone yellow pages and other local print media have both companies beat hands down as adult service ad venues for South Carolina. Any interest in targeting them for criminal prosecution? Didn’t think so.” This weekend, I was also glad to hear craigslist CEO Jim Buckmaster go on the offensive against the offended on On the Media.

I’ll be writing more about the law after the internet soon. I have lawyers on the brain.

(Disclosure: Craig Newmark is a friend and an investor in Daylife, where I’m a partner.)

  • I know of a legitimate IT business in Charlottesville, VA. whose ads have repeatedly been flagged and removed from Craigslist. Happens to be my son’s little business. He lives in Charlottesville and is trying to build his customer base there. ( One comment from a flagger said his ad wasn’t legitimate because the business phone area code was not a Charlottesville area code. The flagger added “and I’m glad I’m removing you” or some such comment. These days, it’s common for people to live in one place and have phone numbers from different areas codes – not an adequate reason to remove an ad. Then there’s no way to appeal the decision – and who are these people sitting in judgment anyway?

    • Tony B

      Right on. I’ve had a similar problem with several other online sales and listing services. There seems to be no investigative process to actually distinguish between legitimate ads and so much of the junk. I suppose that’s a function of the sheer amount of data that has to be weeded through at an ever-changing pace. While you’re investigating the legitimacy of one post, 500 more have been added.

      • Here’s the email note from owner after his third attempt to post on the Charlottesville, VA Craigslist was rebuffed yesterday:

        “Craigslist is effectively useless.”

  • Fascinating post, Jeff. Love the question: “Can the law, like media, still be one-size-fits-all?” This has always been a question to some extent – what we see as ethical or moral (i.e. the law) has always been a matter of opinion.

    This has got me thinking about rules in schools for students – those that are emerged in the “internet culture.” In one-size-fits-all cultures (like schools), how can we break down those boundaries?

    The internet has often been regarded as the “wild frontier” where laws don’t apply. The lack of control from “above” (governments, adults, etc.) shakes up the hierarchy. How are laws and rules going to change for all of us in the future?

  • Fascinating column, Jeff.

    Andy’s question is a provocative follow-on. My thought this morning is that education, in the sense of *learning* is always more like the Internet than it’s like a “proper” staircase with wardens along the way to ensure the carpet doesn’t get bunched. We need structure to support exploration and emergence, but the structure all too quickly becomes self-perpetuating and finally malignant. Yet without some structure, emergence isn’t prompted or supported as it should be. Perhaps what’s needed are metaphors that can encompass and articulate the seeming oppositions between hierarchy and emergence, just as a poem finds its power in the seeming opposition between constraint and freedom. Dunno. The first task, always, is to find the most interesting questions, as you have certainly done here.

  • It makes sense for the “elite” to react like this and everybody else to digest this notion and idea of governance of the world. What happens online with new media and services like Graig’s List is blatantly conceived as an extension of the old, established world into big screens, mobile phones and the internet. Only a few realize that the world is fundamentally changes at exponential speed. Most if not the majority of the law makers 1. weren’t born with the internet in their lives, not to mention the internet’s mainstream appeal 2. are unable to catch up with the changes 3. believe new laws and more restrictive laws are necessary. They’re not.

    Barry Schwartz on our loss of wisdom.

  • To be a bit contrarian – when you say:

    “But sex? Who gives a damn? Clearly, the community doesn’t think it needs to be protected from that. So who are these cops protecting and from what?

    That’s a fascinating aspect of the culture of the internet: It shows what really matters to a community and what does not matter and that, in turn, reveals how out of touch laws and those who make and enforce them can be”

    I think you are making the error of assuming the mores of the adult Net-community are the same as society overall.

    As an adult Netizen, I don’t give a monkeys about Craigslist batting for lasses of interesting repute, but as a father of kids I damn well do.

    So I am caught in a conflict of interest – and in a vote between my own laissez faire attitudes and whats best for my kids I’ll vote for the future – of my kids.

    As will, I suspect, the mainstream – which is why we are where we are here.

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  • Jim Knopf

    Interesting article, interesting comments. But: This is all very US-centered. Other parts of the world see some things very differently, maybe even some global activity like sex ;-)

    What are the options, then, when we take into account that the internet is global by design? Hint: only one answer is correct:

    (a) Global laws
    (b) Censorship

    OK, this is not so hard. Since nations have so far prevailed over any globalisation, either in economy or in law, (a) will probably be some days off in the future.

    So while I do not have any easy solution, it is not as easy to whail about politicians that are not techno-phobe or control freaks. They are acting in the name of the people that mandated them to govern their country. This excludes

  • Troy Johnson

    Two hypo ads on Craig’s List:

    1) Very clear prostitution ad. Specifically offers sex for money.

    2) I will sell you a photocopy of “What Would Google Do?” for $10.

    There are people on the Internet that are OK with prostitution ads and there are people that are OK with copyright violation. Jeff, would you let the second ad stay on Craig’s List if they would not remove it?

    How do you distinguish the first ad from the second? Should Craig’s List treat these two ads differently?

    • invitedmedia

      craigslist is simply the one making headlines.

      what about (the now-owned-by-hef) adultfriendfinder plethora of properties?


      and the numerous other pay-to-lay locations?

      good luck with that.

      • Troy Johnson

        So because we cannot get all prostitution ads or copyright violations off the web the two ads mentioned above stay on Craig’s List?

        Should the police enforce the law in either of the scenarios?

        My take on Jeff’s blog post above that the prostitution ad should be left alone. What about the ad for copyright violation? In his blog entry he mentions that fraud is enforced? Why enforce fraud but not prostitution or copyright?

      • invitedmedia

        my mistake… thought i hit the comment button where my comment would format all by its lonesome.

        carry on.

        and why would i spend $10 for a “photocopy” of jeff’s book? he pretty much lays it out here for free on a daily basis… with added seasonings!

    • My personal response is to flag both. Craigslist shouldn’t treat either ad differently, the community using the site/tool should be left to treat them as they wish.

  • Mark Wilson

    Craigslist CEO Jim Buckmaster just posted an open letter to the SC Attorney General at

  • invitedmedia

    some dormant braincells just reminded me that as of dec. ’08 there was an sec filing for the adultfriendfinder network to go pubic.

    ooops! that’s “public”.

    my bad.

  • Why the fixation on sex? Who cares? People also sell drugs on Craigslist. Just check out all the ads for ‘ski companion’ or ‘snow’. This ain’t in Vermont.
    The web is a true free market. Morality laws are anachronistic. The free market will always find a way. Its not so terrible.

  • Dale Harrison

    The law serves two very different purposes. One is to signal society’s moral position and the other is to codify and channel pre-existing behavior. The 18th Amendment (enacting prohibition) in an example of the first; the 21th Amendment (repealing prohibition) is an example of the second.

    The law tends to be a weak protection against the tide of sufficiently widespread consumer sentiment and behavior (think marijuana). People want to be moral and lawful…so long as it doesn’t significantly restrict what they otherwise really want to do.

    The past decade of frustration the music industry has faced should be some indication. If there’s one lesson iTunes has taught us, its that a business model that allows people to stay within the law without having to fundamentally alter their baseline behavior will be quite successful…but law alone doesn’t serve as much of a barrier.

    In the libertarian world of the Internet, successful business is more about following the stampeding herd than shouting at the herd for stampeding…

    Dale Harrison
    [email protected]

  • As I thought about this today (at school primarily) and as I came home to read these responses (especially Troy Johnson and Dale Harrison’s), I think that communities (on the web and otherwise) have to police themselves in order to be effective.

    This is something teachers have started to do more of – create a classroom community and get some consensus around classroom rules (i.e. contracts signed by all students of rules they developed). As regulatory agencies impose rules, especially now as social media is exploding, we’re going to begin seeing more of the “internet speak-easy.” People will react to the rules and laws they see as unfair – and all cultures and communities will be different.

    We’ve seen this already with Facebook and the uproar over their terms of service a few months ago (hell, we’ve even seen it with their site redesign and people’s downright disgust and anger that it was changed). When you do wrong by the community, there is surely going to be chatter, unrest, and even revolution (i.e. creating something else!).

    It shouldn’t up to regulators to police content, it is up to the community. AGs and other regulators imposing laws (with Craigslist, internet gambling, etc.) see their job as protectors; really they’re just censoring and transferring control to governments, managers and other hierarchical heads.

    Not to open up a HUGE bag of worms, but why it is my perception that it is primarily conservative-republican politicians that call for this censorship/policing/saving-humankind-from-itself? They’re trying to be a party of “revolutionaries” and “less government.” By limiting open communities that have functioned at a high level of efficiency, doesn’t that present itself in direct opposition of their platform? Is that perception wrong? (again, not trying to ruffle feathers … I’m not even claiming that I’m one party or the other, but I find it troubling).

  • ‘Probably all laws are useless; for good men do not want laws at all, and bad men are made no better by them.’
    – Demonax

  • bigyaz

    Rosenblum brings up an interesting point: Drugs are also sold openly on craigslist. Are we OK with that, too? No problem if your junior high kid can go online and find a ready source of crack or Oxycontin in your town? (Sure, those kids who are determined can find it in other ways, but craigslist makes it much, much more easily available.)

    I think the idea that the “community will police itself” is a bit glib and simplistic.

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  • Another good point Mr. Jarvis: if we regulate Craigslist and determine that sex is not kosher to sell, we take a lot of the point of craigslist away – it’s a market to buy and sell whatever you want.

    One point: this is all a backlash of the craigslist killer. People get ripped off on craigslist all the time. While murder certainly doesn’t equate, the phrase ‘buyer beware’ ought to come into play.

  • From a german point of view i am still astonished about the sex phobia in the USA. Things like nipple gate or if a married politican has a girlfriend would have it even hard to find their way into the news.

    But we have problems as well, when internet problems have to be decided by judges. not all know the specific problems of the internet when it comes for example to brand problems in keywords.

  • Buckmaster is dangerously wrong IMHO. I have posted a contrary opinion at should anyone care to read a counter-point.

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  • Meredith Wright

    And who, exactly, is forcing anyone to look at or tolerate ads selling sex or drugs or anything on Craigslist? Stay off it, don’t read the ads in the back of L.A. Weekly. Turn off the TV if you don’t like the shows or the content. These aren’t items that are being FORCED into anyone’s life or home. These are items that do not require anyone who disapproves to look at them. And, btw, if you’re looking to buy furniture or sell used books on Craigslist, stop looking for the ads selling sex. The last time I looked at Craigslist, those things were in differrent places.

    • benson bear

      NO, they are NOT in different places. There are people trying to buy and sell drugs in the Strictly Platonic personals section. That is the problem.

  • There is no point in outlawing any activity in which there is no victim.

  • Jim Knopf

    Apple disallowed an ebook reader for the iphone because with it you can read the Kama Sutra – in the Gutenberg Library ( which hosts thousands of books which are often considered to be of world wide cultural value. Since all web browser can access the Kama Sutra, I am waiting for the day that Safari, Firefox and Internet Explorer are outlawed.

    To me, this is another example of how national prejudices and bigotry are assumed to be of value to the whole world. Which they are not. But then, in US-College-libraries, the Kama Sutra will probably only available to people over 75 being accompanied by their parents. Oh boy …

    Info: the blog-entry of the developer of the aforementioned e-book reader is