Hard Choices

Liz McDougall on Defending Classified Ads for Erotic Services


Liz McDougall on Defending Classified Ads for Erotic Services

Illustration of McDougall and Larkin by Jimmy Turrell

In the summer of 2008, a partner at our Seattle law firm asked me to work with Craigslist. I’d been focused on Internet law and cyber crime for clients like Microsoft (MSFT) and Amazon.com (AMZN), and I’d done work with victims of abuse. Craigslist was drafting new guidelines for its erotic services section. These ads may be distasteful, but services like stripping and phone sex are legal.

Craigslist had let people post these ads for free. It added a fee after pressure from the states attorneys general; payments make it easier to track predators. Then the attorneys general turned around and accused them of profiting from the exploitation of women and children. In 2010, I was sitting in our firm’s office in San Francisco when [Craigslist] Chief Executive Officer Jim Buckmaster told me they were going to shut the section down. It was heartbreaking. I knew the content would just migrate.

Around that time, Backpage.com [the Village Voice Media-owned classified ad branch] had come out swinging to defend its ads. It was aggressive. When one of their board members reached out to me in February, I flew to their headquarters in Phoenix and met with Executive Editor Michael Lacey and CEO Jim Larkin. I was impressed with their commitment. These are family men. They want to stop the exploitation of children. We monitor these ads and do everything we can to help law enforcement trace traffickers.

Craigslist and Backpage are competitors. It was clear I’d have to leave [my firm] to work with them. They gave me their word that they are not going to back down on this. I quit and took them on as my only client. I don’t enjoy the scrutiny. It’s scary, and it can be very unpleasant. As long as we fight trafficking, I can live with people demonizing us.

Has the Internet increased the incidence of prostitution and trafficking? It wouldn’t surprise me. There is a lot of public pressure to shut down the ads. I understand why people think there’s a tipping point. With Craigslist, there was a tipping point. But that’s not the culture of this company, or the personality of Jim or Michael or me.

If they shut down the adult category, I’ll leave. Backpage is best positioned to fight this. If that happens and I quit, I don’t know what I’ll do. This is all-consuming for me. — As told to Diane Brady 


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