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Running Hot and Cold

AP reporter Meg Kinnard has revealed that Defendant McMaster has not prosecuted so much as a single prostitution case in his 7 years as SC Attorney General, and has not objected to local newspapers running adult service ads, choosing instead to attack SF-based craigslist:

Ann Bartow, a professor of Internet law at the University of South Carolina School of Law, said McMaster’s decision to take on Craigslist and not local newspapers that advertise escort services suggests political motivations.

“Why Craigslist? Newspapers run the same ads, but they have people locally who would stand up for them, and he didn’t want to alienate the newspapers that would be reporting on his campaign,” Bartow said.

Turning a Blind Eye

One of the more interesting stories in this “news cycle” has been the absolute disinterest on the part of reporters and politicians alike in adult service ads featured in journalistic media, no matter how numerous or graphic they may be when compared to craigslist.

Consider the following ads, a small sampling of the tens of thousands of “escort ads” currently featured in classifieds operated by Village Voice Media, publisher of dozens of newspapers throughout the US (WARNING – GRAPHIC DEPICTIONS OF HUMAN SEXUALITY):

UPDATE – Oddly, each of these ads have been pulled! Highlights included multiple close-up photos of a woman performing fellatio, and price lists for services including “GFE, BBBJ, CIM, “swallow,” DATY, “digits”, 69, “facials,” “anal,” and a “cum showering rainbow.” Not too hard to find similar examples among the thousands of remaining ads.

BTW, each of these were among the “featured” ads for their respective cities, for which Village Voice charges extra, such that they presumably fell well within their standards for this category.

It’s worth noting that ANY ONE OF THESE AD TITLES ALONE contains more explicit content than you will likely find in all craigslist adult service ads combined.

Why are such ads featured by a well-established company that operates a chain of newspapers nationwide of no interest to the same politicians that have engaged in a witch hunt against craigslist? Could it have anything to do with their need for positive stories and campaign endorsements from those very same newspapers?

And why are such ads of no interest to newspaper reporters? Is it possible that writing stories critical of craigslist’s (relatively tame) “adult service” section is more career-friendly than attacking their own employer (or journalistic media brethren) for operating a (far more graphic) “adult service” section of their own?

Victory!

The office of Defendant McMaster proclaimed victory today:

More importantly, overnight they have removed the erotic services section from their website, as we asked them to do. And they are now taking responsibility for the content of their future advertisements. If they keep their word, this is a victory for law enforcement and for the people of South Carolina.

Nicely spun, perhaps by trash-talking McMaster operative Trey Walker (@treywalker), who reportedly was investigated by the SC State Law Enforcement Division for election fraud in connection with Defendant McMaster’s 2002 campaign:

“I’m embarrassed about it,” Walker said. “I’ve embarassed my family, my friends, my employer, my clients. It was stupid and silly.”

Speaking of elections, here is Defendant McMaster celebrating another important victory in The Post and Courier, the publishers of which he recently condemned as criminals.


CL Sues SC AG For Declaratory Relief

craigslist has filed suit against SC AG Henry McMaster in federal court in South Carolina, seeking declaratory relief and a restraining order with respect to criminal charges he has repeatedly threatened against craigslist and its executives.

Two weeks ago Mr McMaster presented craigslist with an ultimatum, “to remove the portions of the Internet site dedicated to South Carolina and its municipal regions which contain categories for and functions allowing for the solicitation of prostitution and the dissemination and posting of graphic pornographic material” within ten (10) days.”

“If those South Carolina portions of the site are not removed,” McMaster said, “the management of craigslist may be subject to criminal investigation and prosecution.”

In addition to being unwarranted by the facts, legal experts agree that the charges threatened represent an unconstitutional prior restraint on free speech, and are clearly barred by federal law (sec 230 CDA).

Interestingly, if you read Mr McMaster’s ultimatum carefully, you’ll note that the only way to definitively comply with it is to take down the craigslist sites for South Carolina in their entirety. The open architecture of craigslist, quintessential to the value it provides for users, simply does not allow for the absolute prevention of solicitation or pornography, with respect to any of its categories and functions.

Usage of craigslist in South Carolina has exploded over the last two years, with some cities experiencing 2000% growth. South Carolinians clearly value craigslist services, and appreciate finding jobs, housing, automobiles, for sale items, friends, romance, community information, local services, event listings, and just about everything else they need in their everyday lives, all in one place, and all for free.

Mr McMaster has persisted with his threats despite the fact that craigslist:

In case there had been any ambiguity as to his intentions, Mr McMaster made the following remarks on Sunday:

“We opened an investigation at 5:01 on Friday, as promised. . . .  We are preparing for a prosecution.  We are investigating.  We are moving forward. . . . . The #1 defendant is Mr. Jim Buckmaster, who is the man in charge of craigslist.. . . .  craigslist is a big promoter and facilitator of prostitution.”

Mr McMaster’s repeated threats of criminal prosecution should we refuse to shut down craigslist for South Carolina have left us little choice but to seek declaratory relief before the court.

Local Coverage of AG McMaster Apology Question

Roundup of local South Carolina coverage of the apology we’ve requested from SC AG Henry McMaster.

Kneejerk Henry Gets McMastered (Fitsnews.com of Charleston, SC)

“We reviewed the Greenville “back page ” as well, and it’s not even close. Craigslist is like reading a children’s book by comparison.”

“McMaster is targeting Craigslist for one reason – they’ve been in the news and he can generate easy headlines by going after them. Oh, and since it’s part of his “official duties,” that means taxpayers have to pay for his media barrage / frivilous prosecution.”

Exclusive: ‘Singled out,’ Craigslist chief hits back (The State, Columbia, SC)

“I’m anticipating an apology for these wrongful accusations and an affirmative statement that no such proceedings will be brought against me or other CEOs,” Buckmaster told The State.

Asked if he believed McMaster was targeting his company for political gain, Buckmaster replied, “You’ll have to ask him that.”

“I can imagine my mother is not pleased to have me wrongly accused of being a criminal,” he said.

Bad Publicity Might Backfire (Independent Mail, Anderson, SC)

McMaster set a deadline for all the ads to be removed and when the deadline went unmet, he issued a statement that he “had no alternative but to move forward with criminal investigation and potential prosecution.”

But wait — he does have one alternative: Knock off the publicity ploys and put his efforts toward other concerns, things like scams on the elderly, fake warranty robo-calls and people who prey on others in financial difficulties with “get-out-of-debt” schemes.

Craigslist CEO wants apology from attorney general McMaster (Charleston Regional Business Journal)

“Many prominent companies, including AT&T, Microsoft and Village Voice Media — not to mention major newspapers and other upstanding South Carolina businesses — feature more ‘adult services’ ads than does Craigslist, some of a very graphic nature,” Buckmaster wrote in his blog.

McMaster spokesman Mark Plowden did not return calls this morning for comment.

Craigslist Is Kicking South Carolina’s Ass (Fitsnews.com, Charleston, SC)

S.C. Attorney General Henry McMaster’s ongoing campaign to make the Palmetto State look as backward as possible has taken a major step forward this week as a popular technology website (Techcrunch) openly mocked South Carolina for its ongoing “battle” with Craigslist.

Remember – the firms that read sites like Tech Crunch are precisely the sort of companies we want to come to South Carolina, especially now that House Speaker Bobby Harrell’s whole “hydrogen economy” has come crashing down on top of his head.

Now, thanks to McMaster, they’re all laughing at us.

An Apology Is In Order

Dear South Carolina Attorney General Henry McMaster,

Two days ago you accused craigslist, and me personally, of engaging in criminal acts, reiterating your previous threat to file unwarranted and unconstitutional charges against us that are clearly barred by federal law. As you put it, “We have no alternative but to move forward with criminal investigation and potential prosecution.”

These very serious allegations followed the dramatic changes we implemented last week, widely applauded by other Attorneys General, that go far beyond the policies and procedures you yourself personally endorsed just 6 months ago, as indicated by your signature on the Joint Statement.

So effective in fact, that our “adult services” and soon-to-be-retired “erotic services” sections combined, for all cities in South Carolina, currently feature a total of 40 ads, all of which comply with our terms of use. That’s 40 ads out of a total of 334,180 currently listed on our SC sites. The rest comprise a thriving marketplace for South Carolinians, offering jobs, housing, for sale items, local services, and just about everything else.

Many prominent companies, including AT&T, Microsoft, and Village Voice Media, not to mention major newspapers and other upstanding South Carolina businesses feature more “adult services” ads than does craigslist, some of a very graphic nature. For a small sampling, look (careful NSFW) here, and here, and here, and here, and here, and here, and here, and here, and here, and here, and here.

Have you fully considered the implications of your accusations against craigslist? What’s a crime for craigslist is clearly a crime for any company. Are you really prepared to condemn the executives of each of the mainstream companies linked above, and all the others that feature such ads, as criminals? craigslist may not matter in your world view, despite our popularity among your constituents, but mightn’t you want an endorsement from any of the SC newspapers for your gubenatorial campaign, whose publishers you’ve just labeled as criminals? Do you really intend to launch a criminal investigation against the phone company? What about potential new jobs connected to big data center buildouts in SC by Internet companies? Are you *sure* you want prosecute all of their CEOs as criminals???

If you are threatening our founder Craig Newmark, a board member with no operational role at craigslist other than as a customer service representative, then you are expanding your list of “criminal suspects” to include thousands of employees at the above-named companies, or the companies’ boards of directors, or both.

Mr McMaster, I strongly recommend you reconsider and retract your remarks, and positively affirm that you have no intention of launching criminal investigations aimed at any of these upstanding companies, because in truth none of them are deserving of such treatment. Certainly when it comes to craiglist, by any objective standard your threats and accusations are unreasonable and unfair:

  • threats of criminal prosecution are utterly unwarranted by the facts
  • the charges threatened are unconstitutional and barred by federal law
  • our adult ad screening regimen is stricter than the one you endorsed
  • our adult services ads are fewer and tamer than other SC venues

We’re willing to accept our share of criticism, but wrongfully accusing  craigslist of criminal misconduct is simply beyond the pale. We would very much appreciate an apology at your very earliest convenience. As I’m sure would all of the other fine companies whose executives you’ve called out as criminals.

Sincerely Yours,

Jim Buckmaster
CEO, craigslist

Target Practice

South Carolina Attorney General Henry McMaster today announced that our recent improvements , which go far beyond measures he personally endorsed six months ago, not only aren’t good enough, but actually require a criminal investigation.

Hmmm. The CL “adult services” section for Greenville, SC has a total of 1 ad for the last 3 days, featuring a photograph of a fully clothed person. The “erotic services” section for Greenville, which was recently closed? 11 ads total, images and text all quite tame.

Meanwhile, the “adult entertainment” section of greenville.backpage.com (careful with link, NSFW), owned by Village Voice Media, has over 60 ads for the last 3 days, and about 250 in total. In sharp contrast with craigslist, many of these ads are quite explicit, quoting prices for specific sex acts, featuring close-ups of bare genitalia, etc.

The situation is much the same for other cities in South Carolina.

Of course, no one in mainstream legal circles thinks either company should be subject to civil suit, let alone a criminal investigation. But if for whatever reason you were so motivated, would you target a venue with 12 PG-13 rated ads, or one with 250 XXX rated ones?

FWIW, neither company is a big player when it comes to adult service ads in South Carolina. You’d want to look to the telephone company yellow pages and local papers in that regard.

Clearly not a craigslist fan

South Carolina Attorney General Henry McMaster says our recent improvements aren’t good enough, and that we will be subject to criminal investigation. He reportedly feels comfortable singling us out, because CL continues to be the biggest offender in his eyes.

Let’s have a look — the CL “adult services” section for Greenville, SC has a total of 1 ad for the last 3 days, featuring a photograph of a fully clothed person.

Meanwhile, the backpage.com (owned by Village Voice Media) “adult entertainment” section for Greenville, SC has about 60 ads for the last 3 days, many of which are quite explicit, quoting prices for specific sex acts, close-up photos of bare genitalia, etc , etc (Be careful, even the index page has photos that are not-safe-for-work).

FWIW, neither craigslist nor backpage are big players when it comes to adult service ads in South Carolina. You’d need to look to the phone company yellow pages and newspapers for that.

Striking a New Balance

As of today for all US craigslist sites, postings to the “erotic services” category will no longer be accepted, and in 7 days the category will be removed.

Also effective today for all US sites, a new category entitled “adult services” will be opened for postings by legal adult service providers. Each posting to this new category will be manually reviewed before appearing on the site, to ensure compliance with craigslist posting guidelines and terms of use. New postings will cost $10, but once approved, will be eligible for reposting at $5.

Unsurprisingly, but completely contrary to some of the sensationalistic journalism we’ve seen these past few weeks, the record is clear that use of craigslist classifieds is associated with far lower rates of violent crime than print classifieds, let alone rates of violent crime pertaining to American society as a whole.

The relative safety of craigslist compared to print classifieds is likely due to some combination of:

  • Measures such as blocking, screening, and telephone verification
  • Community moderation via our flagging system
  • Electronic trail ensures violent criminals are quickly caught
  • Personal safety tips prominently posted
  • Unusually high level of cooperation with law enforcement

Community moderation as exemplified by our flagging system is arguably the most successful system ever conceived for eliminating inappropriate activity from a massive internet community. Working in tandem with various other protective technologies, it is an inescapable force to be reckoned with for anyone set on abusing free internet communications across a broad array of posting types.

However, with respect to this new paid category for advertising by legal businesses, we will experiment with some of the methods traditionally employed in paid print classifieds.

We’d like to thank everyone who has provided helpful input over the past few weeks, all of which was closely considered:

  • Our users, whose suggestions shape every aspect of craigslist
  • Attorneys General, who provided valuable constructive criticism
  • Law Enforcement officers nationwide, hugely supportive as always
  • Legally compliant businesses wishing to advertise their services
  • EFF and other experts defending free speech and Internet law

We are optimistic that the new balance struck today will be an acceptable compromise from the perspective of these constituencies, and for the diverse US communities that value and rely upon craigslist.

Note: Our announced intention to contribute 100% of net revenues for the “erotic services” category to charity has been fulfilled, and will continue to be fulfilled, notwithstanding criticism questioning our good faith in this regard. However, in light of today’s changes, and to avoid any future misunderstanding, we are making no representation regarding how revenue from the “adult services” category will be used. Our commitment to philanthropy remains, and craigslist will continue to develop its charitable initiatives.

Classifieds and Killers

Interesting Wikipedia article on Lonely Heart Killers lists a number of high-profile murder cases that involved print classified ads or similar services.

It’s horrible to think of craigslist being used in connection with any violent crime whatsoever, let alone a murder. One crime is too many, and we must do everything in our power to eliminate it.

However, when critics rush to label craigslist classifieds as uniquely dangerous, it’s worth putting things in perspective. craigslist users have posted more than 1.15 billion classified ads to date, easily 1000x the total number ever to appear in all of the classifieds that figured in these “print ad murders” combined.

Those demanding that craigslist put in place the same procedures and protections that print classifieds have employed should be careful what they’re wishing for.

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