The Common Good

Craigslist Attorneys Threaten Georgia Anti-Trafficking Activists

Editor's Note: What is behind Craigslist's recent enigmatic, and dramatic, choice to replace (at least for now) its entire "adult services" section with the single word "censored"? Is it a publicity stunt, or a genuine response to protests, by state attorneys general and activists, of the widespread use of the section to market prostitution, including that of often-coerced girls under 18?

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Only Craigslist can say for sure, but some interesting perspective on the issue comes from a story Sojourners has been researching in recent weeks. Below, read the start of our coverage of how Craigslist's attorneys have been sending threats to Georgia anti-trafficking activists who conducted a study of underage prostitution on Craigslist (while also being willing -- in stark contrast to last weekend -- to spend liberal amounts of time giving their side of the story to the media).

"Selling Our Children", an article in the August issue of Sojourners magazine, reports on the growing problem of predators who sell girls (average age 14) for sex, and an activist coalition in Georgia that is fighting back. Its newest weapon is the Georgia Demand Study released this summer which paints a picture of the "customers" who pay for sex with adolescent girls. The report is stirring controversy -- including a cease-and-desist letter from Craigslist's laywers.

"We definitely struck a chord," said Alex Trouteaud, a researcher with the Schapiro Group, the independent consulting firm that carried out the study.

Researchers and advocates hope that having a better understanding of who buys sex with young females and how they access these girls will help them to design more effective strategies for preventing the prostitution of children. The study used data from more than 200 surveys with men who responded to online advertisements for paid sex with "young" females. (The ads' text did not explicitly say that the females were under 18; such ads would not be posted under Craiglist's current monitoring system). The men were not informed that they were participating in a study. The study showed that these men were generally young; more than 75 percent were in their 20s or 30s. The men called from communities all over the Atlanta area, but the largest portion said they were calling from Atlanta's wide ring of suburbs or from the area around the airport.

Along with this data about men who want to buy sex with girls, the study reported that Craigslist was "by far the most efficient medium for advertising sex with young females." Ads on craigslist received three times as many responses as identical ads placed on other sites, the report said.

In a "cease and desist" letter sent earlier this summer, Craigslist attorneys allege that this claim was defamatory and false. "They don't have any data that supports that claim," said Michael Clyde, a lawyer for Craiglist. Unlike the rest of the study's results, the comparison of Craigslist to other sites was based only on an initial pilot study period. During that period, researchers say they initially placed ads on several different free websites that carry ads for sexual services. However, they only received responses to ads placed on two of the sites -- Craigslist and Backpage. So few calls came in from sites other than Craigslist that they decided to run ads only on Craigslist for the majority of the data collection period.

However, Clyde said Craigslist's cease-and-desist letter also contained a more general instruction to activists not to do similar demand research in the future: "We do that for anyone we find has been posting false advertising on Craigslist."

The organizations named in the cease-and-desist letter -- the Women's Funding Network, the Schapiro Group, and Duffey Communications -- work in close partnership with each other and with the other Atlanta-area groups profiled in the feature article "Selling Our Children."

The controversy over the Georgia Demand Study is the latest round in an ongoing debate about how best to regulate so-called "adult services" on Craigslist and other online classified services. In 2009, in part because of pressure from 40 State Attorneys General, Craigslist renamed its erotic services category "adult services"; began charging money for listings; and agreed to conduct a manual review of all photos submitted with listings for adult or therapeutic services. Craigslist also began requiring credit card information for anyone listing services in these sections, theoretically allowing law enforcement authorities to track down advertisers when pursuing claims of trafficking, prostitution, or other illegal activities.

Still, law enforcement officials and anti-trafficking advocates say this is not enough. The Women's Funding Network and A Future Not A Past are urging supporters to boycott Craigslist until the company makes real changes to prevent the sexual exploitation of minors on their site.

Meanwhile, Craigslist attorney Clyde said that the company is concerned about illegal activity on its site. "Craigslist is very concerned about any issue of human trafficking," he said. "The bad guys are endlessly creative, and in the past, Craigslist and other sites have been used for purposes that didn't fit our terms of use."

But (in apparent contradiction to last weekend's actions) Craigslist CEO Jim Buckmaster said in August that removing the adult services section would only force advertisers peddling sex for pay into other areas of the site, such as the personals section.

Letitia Campbell, a Ph.D. candidate in Christian social ethics at Emory University, is a founding editor of Practical Matters (www.practicalmattersjournal.com).

[Stay tuned to God's Politics for more on this story, including more from our interview with Craigslist's lawyer, and response from the Georgia anti-trafficking activists].

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