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Electronic Frontier Foundation Says Attorney Generals Have No Case Against Craigslist

From While state attorneys general hammered away this week on Craigslist Inc.’s racy ads, a major digital rights advocacy group says law enforcement doesn’t have a legal leg to stand on.

Matt Zimmerman, a senior staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said in a blog post yesterday that he believes if any of the attorneys general launch charges against Craigslist, they’re sure to lose the case.

“The notion that Craigslist (and their officers!) should be held responsible for third-party content on their site because they didn’t do enough to satisfy the individual whims of respective state attorneys general is wholly inconsistent with the law,” wrote Zimmerman. “If site operators were forced to screen all third-party contributions under risk of civil or criminal penalty, the Internet would lose many of the vibrant services that have made it so dynamic. The problem would be further compounded if, as these state AGs now suggest, each state was able to put together its own wish list instructing web site operators how to treat third-party content.”

Zimmerman’s blog is in response to the legal pressure that has been quickly mounting on Craigslist.

After Craigslist officials were called to a meeting with attorneys general from three states on Tuesday, the top law enforcement officer of a fourth state issued an ultimatum to the online classified advertising firm: Pull graphic pornographic material and prostitution ads from the site or face prosecution.

South Carolina Attorney General Henry McMaster sent a letter to Craigslist CEO Jim Buckmaster saying that the company has not installed sufficient safeguards to keep its site from being used as a “vehicle to advertise or solicit prostitution.” McMaster added that he’s concerned about the easy accessibility of “graphic pornographic pictures” on the site.

McMaster said he wants the questionable ads under Craigslist’s “Erotic Services” category to be removed from the South Carolina part of the site by close of business on Friday, May 15.

Tough words weren’t just coming from McMaster.

After Tuesday’s meeting between Craigslist and the attorneys general from Missouri, Connecticut and Illinois to discuss the questionable ads, Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal called on the site to “banish virtual streetwalkers and pornography.”

“In our meeting today with Craigslist, we urged the site to swiftly shut down the online brothel operating from its pages,” Blumenthal said in a statement, adding that if the site fails to react, he will consider taking legal action. “Craigslist’s measures to combat prostitution and pornography are so far inadequate, failing to curb activities that contribute to human trafficking, child exploitation and other crimes.”

Zimmerman, saying the states have no case, points to Section 230 of the federal Communications Decency Act. He says the act immunizes providers of interactive computer services, like Craigslist, ISPs and domain name registrars, from state criminal liability for content posted by third parties.

He went on to say that Craigslist’s government critics are trying to control the ad categories on the web site.

“Under such a radical re-envisioning, the Internet would ultimately become the province of rich and cautious media companies who would actively serve as gatekeepers to decide whether and how users could engage with the world,” said Zimmeran. “The AGs are wrong to promote such a profound change … and out of line to suggest that such a legal world already exists.”

The Erotic Services category on Craigslist has been under scrutiny since Boston University medical student Philip Markoff was arrested and arraigned last month for allegedly murdering one woman and kidnapping and assaulting another after meeting both of them through erotic services ads on Craigslist.

On Monday, Markoff also was charged with assault and weapons charges for allegedly using a gun to threaten a woman in a Rhode Island hotel on an April 16. The woman told police that she had met her assailant through an advertisement on Craigslist.


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