Human Trafficking on Craigslist

THE HUMAN TRAFFICKING HOTLINE: 1-888-3737-888

(Trigger warning, non-graphic, for subject matter involving the sale and rape of minors.)

Craigslist is profiting from human trafficking, and they are unapologetic.

This has been an issue for years, but it came to a media head last week. On Wednesday, August 4, CNN posted this story, followed by a report on AC360. On Friday, August 6, MC and AK, two girls who were sold by pimps hundreds of times on Craigslist to eager rapists in cities across the US, published an open letter as a half-page ad in the Washington Post. (The ad is archived here in PDF form by the Rebecca Project.)

They took the weekend to mull it over, but the folks at Craigslist responded in an open letter of their own on the site blog. Here is their compassionate, reasoned response:

[…]Would you or the advocacy groups who placed the ads please let us know where the police reports were filed? We have been unable thus far to identify police reports matching the crimes you describe.

[…]craigslist is used by more than 50 million Americans to facilitate billions of interactions each month, and criminal misuse of the site is quite rare.

[…]craigslist is one of the few bright spots and success stories in the critical fight against trafficking and child exploitation. We’ve been told as much by experts on the front lines, many of whom we have met with in person, and many of whom have shared helpful suggestions we have incorporated in our approach.

They first chose to attack the veracity of MC and AK’s account, and by extension the idea that trafficking really occurs all that frequently on Craigslist. They follow up by openly asserting that it’s basically not a problem because it’s “quite rare”. And then they laud themselves with a bit of revisionist history.

Those “helpful suggestions” which they’ve been getting from “experts on the front lines” include Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal subpoenaing Craigslist for evidence that they’ve done a single thing to back up their big talk about screening – screening which only began when the site became embroiled in the aftermath of the murder of a prostitute by a john in Boston, which received much media attention.

The “success story” of Craigslist is only measurable in terms of money. Andrea Powell of the FAIR fund told CNN that “Craigslist is like the Wal-Mart of online sex trafficking right now in this country”. Indeed, AIM Group, an advertising consultancy group, determined in April that 30% – thirty percent – of Craigslist’s revenue is from adult services ads. Of course, that’s including the money that Craigslist had originally promised to give to charity. It reneged on that promise when it began manual screening of the ads. In this site blog post by CEO Jim Buckmaster, he blames the charities for forcing him to pocket all that delicious cash:

craigslist started charging for “erotic services” at the repeated request of law enforcement, some of whom suggested fees of $100 or more. It was our idea to pledge net revenues to charity, an unprecedented pledge that no phone company or newspaper featuring adult ads ever took, and one which subjected us to significant state by-state regulatory burdens. This pledge was met with accusations of dishonesty, and ridicule that we thought any charity would want our “tainted” money. Can anyone blame us for announcing in May 2009 we would not repeat this pledge with adult services? As was made clear a year ago, craigslist will continue to engage in charitable giving, privately, and as we see fit.

Of course, they’re very mum about that private philanthropy, though this New York Times article briefly explores their “charitable” handwaving. Note that at this point in the game, Buckmaster is still willing to admit that Craigslist had to be dragged kicking and screaming by “law enforcement” (read: 80% of the attorneys general of the United States) into doing something to curb prostitution and human trafficking.

If Craig and Jim are so confident that their site is a “bright spot” in all this, then why did they preemptively seek exemption from prosecution before they were ever charged with a crime by South Carolina AG Henry McMaster (one of the 40 AGs who leaned on Craigslist) – so preemptively, in fact, that their suit was thrown out on Friday?

(As a final note: Last year, I learned about Kijiji and considered using their service. Kijiji, now eBay Classifieds, used the past couple year’s scrutiny on Craigslist to promote itself as a personals-free site. Kijiji is an outgrowth of Marktplaats.nl, a similar site which has pseudopods all over Europe. eBay started acquiring the Kijiji family in 2004 and spent the next few years getting its tentacles into the online classifieds business. Interestingly, eBay is a minority shareholder in Craigslist, and the two have been battling each other in the courts over issues of competition and trade secrets, to ex-eBay CEO Meg Whitman’s dismay as she runs for governor of California. Given all that entanglement, I think I’ll pass on using eBay’s classifieds for now.)

THE HUMAN TRAFFICKING HOTLINE: 1-888-3737-888

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