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Craigslist’s ‘Adult Services’ closure sparks debate on how to stop child trafficking

The online bulletin board service Craigslist has closed its controversial “Adult Services” category in the US amid mounting criticism; however, many critics argue that the closure will do little to stop the spread of child trafficking on the net.


For millions of American internet users, Craigslist is an indispensible online utility. The site serves over seven billion pages a month of classified listings advertising everything from new jobs to roommates and, according to its critics, illegal sex services. 

On Saturday, after mounting pressure from politicians and pressure groups in the United States, Craigslist decided to close its controversial “Adult Services” category. The company offered no explanation for its decision and apparently did so reluctantly – replacing the text “Adult Services” with the word “CENSORED” displayed in bold capital letters, attached to a dead link. 

Regardless, advocates for sex workers and anti-child trafficking groups cheered the move, stating that t will help protect vulnerable women and children.

Craigslist's decision to no longer feature ads for sexually-oriented services marks the end of a struggle over many years between the website and its critics. In May 2009, the site made a significant change in its policies by prohibiting users to post ads and pictures that were not first vetted by an attorney. Additionally, the site began charging for adult-related ads and changed the section from "Erotic Services" to the now defunct "Adult Services."

“Adult Services” no, “Services Erotique” oui

Craigslist’s decision to no longer accept adverts for adult services, however, is limited to its sites in

An ad featured on Craigslist "Adult Services" listing on the company's Paris site.
An ad featured on Craigslist "Adult Services" listing on the company's Paris site.

the United States. The company maintains dozens of international sites that are not affected by the closure. 

On the Paris edition of the site, for example, dozens of postings clearly advertise for sexual services complete with pricing, contact information and other details. Already, less than a day after the US-ban went into effect, American postings for comparable sexual services have begun to appear on the French site. 

Critics of the ban contend that this demonstrates why the move to close that category is more symbolic than substantive given how easy it is to advertise elsewhere on both Craigslist and the internet as a whole.

The issue here is whether fousing on the advertising medium itself is the most effective way to combat child trafficking and prostitution. There is very little consensus on this issue though, even among advocacy groups. 

“I think it’s a real misdirection of energy if the goal is to end sex trafficking,” conceded Sienna Baskins, co-director of the New York-based Sex Workers Project in a recent television interview. “I think there are a lot better places to put our energy,” she added.  Instead, Baskin argues that attacking the organised crime and poverty that underlie the global trafficking business would be much more effective. 

Craigslist replaced the listing for its Adult Services category with the word "CENSORED" in bold characters.
Craigslist replaced the listing for its Adult Services category with the word "CENSORED" in bold characters.

Craigslist CEO, Jim Buckmaster, agrees. For months, as this controversy brewed, Buckmaster along with the company’s founder and namesake, Craig Newmark, argued that forcing the company to prohibit complete freedom of speech will not protect those being sexually abused.

"Scapegoating advertising services is a very unfortunate misdirection of attention and energy from the tough choices, hard work, and significant investments required for addressing actual causes of, and making actual progress against the scourges of trafficking and child exploitation," Buckmaster said in a recent interview with the Washington Post

Profits vs Principle
Craigslist’s critics contend that the company put profits ahead of principals in its battle to preserve its adult classified listings.
The company’s decision to no longer accept such ads in the US market will reportedly cost the business tens of millions of dollars in lost revenue. Craigslist is a private company, and as such, does not publish financial results, however, the New York Times reports the company will earn an estimated 45 million dollars this year for such ads. 
But if Craigslist’s past decisions are anything to go by, it is unlikely that money alone was a decisive factor in fighting to keep the sexually-related ads category. After all, this is a company valued at several billion dollars that has refused numerous offers to sell all or even part of itself in an initial public offering. Additionally, the company also refuses to charge any fees for the vast majority of the categories on its site, limiting paid listings to real estate listing, adult services, among a handful of other categories.

Instead, Newmark’s philosophy is deeply-rooted in the protection of free speech and the Silicon Valley culture that promotes the wide dispersal of information even if it may be offensive (another such advocate can be found in Julian Assange at Wikileaks).

Newmark argued back in 2007 that his company works closely with law enforcement officers when Craigslist users do the cross the line and engage in illegal activity. Buckmaster reaffirmed this position in a recent post on the company’s official blog, “we are working intensively as I write this with experts and thought leaders at leading non-profits and among law enforcement on further substantive measures we can take.” 
These declerations, however, are without meaning for activists at The Rebecca Project for Human Rights, who were among the most vocal critics of its adult services ad listings.

In an open letter to “Craig,” two children, who were allegedly trafficked for sex, claim the violence against them was facilitated by advertisements on Craigslist. “New traffickers are putting up ads every day, because they know it’s less risky and more profitable to sell girls on Craiglist than to deal drugs,” the group wrote in the letter that was distributed across the internet. 

Not surprisingly, this issue is prompting heated discussion on social networking sites such as Twitter. If you would like to follow along the debate, go to and enter the follow key words: #craigslist, #sextrafficking and @craignewmark.  Below is a sampling of several recent comments:
  • NickKristof Thanks to Craigslist for blocking access to ‘Adult Services’ pages. Will help fight trafficking.
  • thatrachelgirl Personally, I feel Craigslist went halfway on this one. A little bit is better than nothing, right?
  • VRHax it will be tougher2chase dwn traffickers due2proxies. prediction this will backfire bigtime.
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