September 8, 2010 | By Matt Zimmerman

Beyond "Censored": What Craigslist's "Adult Services" Decision Means for Free Speech

On Saturday, after years of pressure from law enforcement officials, Internet classified ad web site Craigslist bowed to demands to remove its "Adult Services" section which critics charged encouraged prostitution and other sex-related crimes. Or at least it appears that it did. Without explanation, following the latest in a series of open letters from state attorneys general decrying the third party content permitted on the site, Craigslist replaced the "Adult Services" link that formerly appeared on the front page of the site with a white-on-black "censored" bar. Whether this move will substantially affect the rate of illegal prostitution across the country remains to be seen. Many, even some of Craigslist's critics, appear to have their doubts. If nothing else, however, this latest turn in the AGs v. Craigslist saga underscores the misguided nature of the AGs' tactics as well as the fundamental disagreement that we (and Congress) have with the AGs' vision of how the Internet should operate.

Through this now years-long struggle, Craigslist's legal position has been and remains absolutely, unequivocally correct: the Communications Decency Act of 1996 (or CDA) grants providers of "interactive computer services" an absolute shield against state criminal law liability stemming from material posted by third parties. Put simply, the law ensures that the virtual soapbox is not liable for what the speaker says: merely creating a forum in which users post ads that may violate state law plainly does not lead to liability for a web site operator.

The federal statutory immunity upon which Craigslist relies is not some clever loophole. Rather, the intermediary immunity provided by the CDA represents a conscious policy decision by Congress to protect individuals and companies who would otherwise be vulnerable targets to litigants who want to silence speech to which they object, illegal or not. We agree with Congress that a federal policy of holding lawbreakers liable for their own illegal behavior instead of holding intermediaries responsible for the illegal acts of others is the right one, both as a matter of fairness as well as an effective strategy by which speech and innovation can be encouraged and rewarded.

This clear protection plays an essential role in how the Internet functions today, protecting every interactive web site operator -- from Facebook to Craigslist to the average solo blog operator -- from potentially crippling legal bills and liability stemming from comments or other material posted to web sites by third parties. Moreover, if they were obligated to pre-screen their users' content, wide swaths of First Amendment-protected speech would inevitably be sacrificed as web site operators, suddenly transformed into conservative content reviewers, permitted only the speech that they could be sure would not trigger lawsuits (or intimidating visits from the attorney general). The ability to encourage speech of all sorts without fear of legal reprisal is a feature of the CDA 230 world, not a shortcoming, one that encourages the publication of a diverse range of viewpoints and not just those of rich and cautious media companies who can afford the financial risk of publication.

As the chief law enforcement officers of their respective states, the attorneys general certainly know that their legal threats are completely meritless. Yet these and other law enforcement officers have shown little regard for what the law actually requires and have instead embarked on a vigorous campaign to strong-arm a company into submission based on bogus legal threats that nonetheless play well to many of their constituents. This strategy might amount to good politics, especially in an election year, but it continues to show remarkable disdain for the bedrock legal principles that have largely served the Internet well over the past 15 years.

It didn't have to be this way. Over the past two years, Craigslist repeatedly offered to go far above and beyond their legal obligations to work with law enforcement officials, offering to manually screen ads, require working phone and credit card numbers from ad posters (thereby creating digital footprints by which lawbreakers could be tracked), and help identify missing persons. Not surprisingly, however, having offered to do more than the law required but less than the AGs demanded, the AGs kept coming back for more, some flatly stating that the essential protections offered by CDA 230 should be repealed.

At least two lessons can be drawn from this latest skirmish in the battle between Craigslist and its critics. First, there sadly appears to be little upside to working with many of these law enforcement officials to resolve such important Internet policy disagreements. At each step of this public debate, the AGs have inevitably rewarded completely voluntary, non-mandatory offers of cooperation from Craigslist with further demands and insults. What possible motivation will other companies have to work with law enforcement to address similar concerns in the future?

Second, and more importantly, supporters of the First Amendment should loudly voice their opposition to this type of misguided rhetoric from elected officials. While Craigslist may have "voluntarily" shuttered its Adult Services section, they did so under constant threat from government officials who continually promised meritless lawsuits and even criminal prosecution if their target did not comply. No one (including Craigslist) disputes that sex trafficking is a reprehensible practice that should be vigorously opposed. The dispute lies in whether law enforcement officials should be permitted to bully and dragoon private web site operators into becoming de facto censors. Many, including EFF, profoundly disagree with the prospect of such a reimagined Internet, and the AGs at minimum owe it to the public to be honest about the First Amendment impact of what they are proposing.


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