TOC Alone in the pillory. Is Craigslist victim of pronaocracy? Your Turn

September 21, 2010

"On Aug. 24, 17 attorneys general sent Craigslist a letter demanding that it closed the sex-related section" it last labelled "adult services". "Craigslist said [on Sept. 15] it had permanently closed the section". These are the facts, as reported by Claire Cain Miller (*).

I am not privy to whatever negotiations had happened since last November, when Craigslist was said to have reached an agreement with 40 attorneys general on what it then called "erotic services". The United States having 50 states, I can only guarantee that in the past ten months at least seven of those forty elected officials either changed their minds or were booted out of office.

Still we cannot hope to understand our Information Age if we choose to ignore this very public quarrel. The topic may stink but so do sewers. And aren't sewers an indispensable service in our crowded cities, deserving the very best management?

Craigslist can argue it has been unfairly pilloried in the US for three reasons. Love of freedom is the first, freedom of speech being so ingrained in the American psyche. The second is the implicit establishment of Hedonism in our Western society, according to which all sexual matters are left to the judgment of consenting individuals. Last but not least, US law (1) exonerates Craigslist from the responsibility of illegal behavior by its users.

On the other hand Claire Cain Miller quotes "Richard Blumenthal, the Connecticut attorney general" as saying "these prostitution ads did not promote a victimless crime. There is human trafficking in children, assaults on women" (**). And in Massachusetts, "Attorney General Martha Coakley [...] planned [...] an initiative to change the federal statute shielding Craigslist", as told by Travis Andersen and Megan Woolhouse (***).

Hedonist fundamentalists are no more attractive than any other religious extremists and I am the first to think there is such a thing as free speech fundamentalism. I also share Mr Blumenthal's revulsion at the exploitation of human beings as mere marketable goods. Yet another disagreeable odor seems to pervade the whole dispute and it smells a lot like hypocrisy. If Craigslist deserves to be pilloried, it should not be alone.

True, Craigslist ads facilitate encounters. In the case of "adult services", such encounters can lead to crime as "the slaying of a New York woman in a Boston hotel last year" showed too clearly. But did Ms Coakley try to shut down Boston hotels and sever road, rail and air links with New York, all infrastructures which in a complementary way facilitate the same type of crimes for which she targeted Craigslist?

True, the hotel and transportation industries bring irreplaceable benefits to society and do not regularly deliver violence as a side effect in the pursuit of pleasure as do "adult" or "erotic" services. But why Ms Coakley and Mr Blumenthal keep so silent when it comes to American Football?

Here is another activity dedicated to our entertainment "[whose] appeal derives in part from its violence" as Alan Schwarz writes with candor (****). Here is another activity which kills, witness the death of "[Owen] Thomas, 21". As Alan Schwarz reports (*****), his suicide last April was facilitated by "chronic traumatic encephalopathy" "whose only known cause is repetitive brain trauma" suffered during "his dozen years of football". Here is another activity which threatens "about 1.4 million children ages 14 to 18" in high school and "three millions others [...] at younger ages".

In a pronaocracy, it would be political suicide of course to ask high schools and colleges to close down football. Sports practice is about the only time in an American education where students encounter discipline, result-based ranking and undisputed teacher authority. And a winning football team is more vital to the fund raising efforts of some colleges than the "$44.4 million [...], about a third of Craigslist annual revenue", brought by its "adult services", according to the AIM Group as relayed by Claire Cain Miller (******).

Craigslist is a much safer punching bag whose pronaocratic muscle is inexistent compared to colleges backed by the influence of the N.F.L. . Besides, its corporate behavior is so un-American. It "operates in a quirky, opaque and at times petulant manner". As "M. Ryan Calo, a senior research fellow [...] at Stanford Law School" says, "it doesn't seem to be exclusively motivated by profit". Quelle horreur!

This is not a reproach real rogues like MM Lloyd Blankfein and Eric Schmidt would incur. They follow the lessons of sports fundamentalism, which preaches Victory at any cost, its moral imperative being You shall not get caught. Please do not confuse Capitalism with capitalists.

Capitalists assess success by the size of their quasi miraculous drafts. With Capitalism, winning through innovation is more soberly measured by the ruin of less competitive business models. From this perspective Craigslist is a roaring success. Can the fact its victim has been the classified ad section which once supported most American local newspapers be a reason it does not have so good a press?

So should we pillory everyone? Why not be a bit more constructive. "Dr. Robert Canu, a clinical professor of neurosurgery [...], and a senior adviser to the N.F.L." declares "we can, and we must, develop brain trauma guidelines similar to the pitch-count regulations now used in Little League baseball". In other words, let us accept life is never safe but recognize and limit unsafe practices whatever they may be.

In the case of "adult services" and unless society were once again to outlaw sex outside of marriage, it must face the fact that freedom means it must tolerate what it does not forbid and should instead focus on better policies. To clean up the Augean Agora which is Internet today, one could for instance formalize the search for suitable sex partners, restricting users to a set of pre-approved criteria while protecting their confidentiality (2).

However distateful it may be to Ms Coakley and Mr Blumenthal to swallow back their vote getting indignation and instead publicly certify safe sex search criteria, driving sex services underground is not a solution and may prove as efficient in promoting crime as the Prohibition Amendment.

True, formal processes can and will be perverted too. Ask users to declare their age, insure nobody, not even the service provider, will be privy to this and any other of their highly personal profile data and do not be surprised if criminal practice gives such ages as 41 and 60 a guilty double entendre. Even the N.F.L. have cheaters. This does not mean privacy should cover flights from responsibility. Statistical analysis can detect the added frequency of a hidden usage and, where the criminal lurks, there the police may lie. The latter, not Craigslist, has the required competence.

Whatever the regime, the powerful are fond of scapegoats. Still this is no reason to pillory Craigslist alone and blind oneself to innovative answers.

Philippe Coueignoux

  • (*) ........... Craigslist Says It Has Shut Its Section for Sex Ads, by Claire Cain Miller (New York Times) - September 16, 2010
  • (**) ......... Under Fire From Critics, Craigslist Blocks Access to 'Adult Services' Pages in U.S., by Claire Cain Miller (New York Times) - September 5, 2010
  • (***) ....... Craigslist adult services section blocked, by Travis Andersen and Megan Woolhouse (Boston Globe) - September 5, 2010
  • (****) ..... For Head Injuries, a Problem in Practice, by Alan Schwarz (New York Times) - September 17, 2010
  • (*****) ... After Penn Suicide, Doctors Find Signs of Disease Seen in N.F.L., by Alan Schwarz (New York Times) - September 14, 2010
  • (******) . Some See a Ploy as Craigslist Blocks Sex Ads, by Claire Cain Miller (New York Times) - September 6, 2010
  • (1) for more information, see the Communications Decency Act in the references for the lecture on Digital Distribution
  • (2) for an existing technology, see ePrio's tEC platform
September 2010
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