Regulating sex and speech

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.

  • So well said, Jeff. Wow! What I posted on the topic earlier today started to inch into that issue of print media perhaps having a chip on their shoulder bout Craigs guzzling up their classified revenue —once the Sun never set on the British Empire, as well, right? deal!— but backed off of it, figuring I’d let the crime fighting argument carry the rest of it and just lightly mentioned that the in depth quality research on this is all coming from blogs. And you had the guts to outright say it, though!! I mean, you’d think The New Yorker and The Atlantic would be putting those Attorney Generals through the ringer by this point by now, you know, if….

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  • Well said,!

  • It’s got to be obvious to anyone who can read…
    It’s NOT about crime fighting.
    Jeff, you’ve really hit the nail on the head.
    I’m sure they’ve been scratching their heads for years, trying to figure out ways to kill Craigslist.
    They even plotted to secretly buy a majority share of it…
    But they failed.
    Then they came up with this plan of attack… obviously so biased.
    There are only 30,000 web sites in the USA alone openly selling sex. … without recourse.
    Craigslist is smart to shut down that section in self defense.
    I hope they leave the word CENSORED there permanently… as a reminder of the fact that Free Speech no longer lives in the USA.

  • As a teen thirty years ago I was a teen appalled to discover blatant sex for sale ads in our rural Ontario phone book. And ads seen in subsequent newspapers have been much worse. Yet no fingers were lifted against those “respectable publications.”

    I thought it was sad that the news media had fallen so low as to not report important news like ACTA due to self interest. this is worse: this is clearly sellout time.

    It’s sad because I grew up in a world where the news media meant something. I sure hope that reporters stop risking their lives for important stories because clearly the bottom line is more important to the news corps.

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  • Nicolas

    Hey Jeff I hope my respond to that Craigslist article isn’t misplaced. I’ve never wrote before or answered to a blog, but you’re book “WWGD?” somehow introduced me to that blogshere. It really inspired me to think about Google and its ways. Just like you, I am impressed of Googles development.

    But let me respond to your slide-in about the German’s behavior with Google, since I am a German myself. Google is already the most important information medium in world history and it is gaining for more and more information and possibilities to get to know us better. And as you described in your book, Google tries to learn what we want next. It is not that Germans doubt the goodwill of Google. Everyone needs Google. Everyone. And there is no comparison to this addiction between a piece of service and the modern human kind. That is what scares Germans although or precisely because everyone needs Google everyday.

    I don’t think that Google would ever do a turn and become a destructive Company quashing peoples freedom, just like “BIG BROTHER” in “1984”. Simply because there would be much less money to earn for Google than with free expansion of diversity. They don’t want to regulate people, they rather want people to regulate Googles offers. I am a big Google-Fan and have no doubt, that they established a new and better economy. But I also do understand the worries. Again it is not the fear Google would change and squanders confidence, it is the fear that they could.

    Companies have to apologize, wherever Germans see to much power, they try to cause to sway, or at least examine in every detail. We suspect absolute power, that’s what we learn in school more than anything else.

  • It might be worth a minor mention that the Times newspaper group has run classifieds advertising prostitution services consistently for many years – as well as larger ads for same in sports sections.

  • This is called Internet. Any service can be misused.
    google facebook or any other social networking site is being used.
    Owner can never be held responsible for this.

    its a website – a medium for the people – and people are responsible how they use it.

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  • Eric Gauvin

    If you think traditional media is trying to kill craigslist (and succeeding), what do you think craigslist should do?

    (In my opinion, craigslist has dominated of the market by lucky timing and by perpetuating an image of themselves as a barebones, altruistic, grassroots movement — though I think Craig would strongly deny this — but the web has evolved a lot since craigslist took root and I think it’s time for some competition.)

    • Andy Freeman

      > In my opinion, craigslist has dominated of the market by lucky timing


      > and by perpetuating an image of themselves as a barebones, altruistic, grassroots movement

      Nope. That image is mostly invisible to the vast majority of craigslist users. That image is for the “folks in the know”, who fall for that kind of stuff – most people neither know nor care about it.

  • Toyota and BP get much better Press then does Craigslist. Toyota and BP’s PR feed the Media News Stories and then pay millions for full page and minute long Trust Us advertisements.

  • barry

    Great article. I already see the ads moving to other sites. This is not going away. This was just an unfair witch hunt.

    You king find everything here:

    And I am sure there are other places too.

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  • Freedom of speech, unless it costs the big boys money-

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  • pramod yadav

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