craigslist Sues South Carolina Attorney General

Posted by: Olga Kharif on May 20, 2009

Today, craigslist announced it has sued South Carolina Attorney General Henry McMaster in federal court in South Carolina to forestall a criminal investigation McMaster announced last Friday. craigslist is “seeking declaratory relief and a restraining order with respect to criminal charges he has repeatedly threatened against craigslist and its executives.”

Essentially, craigslist is trying to push back against some measures the attorney general has taken against the site in recent weeks in order to combat prostitution in his state. McMaster alleges that prostitutes had advertised their services through craigslist; and prostitution is illegal in South Carolina and in the vast majority of other states.

In early May, McMaster threatened craigslist execs with criminal investigation unless they remove erotic services section from craigslist in South Carolina. And on May 15, the attorney general announced the investigation has commenced. “As of 5:00 p.m. this afternoon, the craigslist South Carolina site continues to display advertisements for prostitution and graphic pornographic material. This content was not removed as we requested. We have no alternative but to move forward with criminal investigation and potential prosecution,” the attorney general’s office said in a statement.

craigslist claims it has removed the offending section on all of its city sites nationwide. And on May 20, McMaster issued another statement, announcing that craigslist has complied with his request but noting that “we had to inform them of possible state criminal violations concerning their past practices to produce a serious response.”

Now, craigslist CEO Jim Buckmaster is firing back. “In addition to being unwarranted by the facts, legal experts agree that the charges threatened represent an unconstitutional prior restraint on free speech, and are clearly barred by federal law (sec 230 CDA),” he wrote in a May 20 blog. “The open architecture of craigslist, quintessential to the value it provides for users, simply does not allow for the absolute prevention of solicitation or pornography, with respect to any of its categories and functions.” In effect, Buckmaster is pointing out that his site can only do so much to combat prostitution. Legal experts believe that now that the erotic services section is closed, more of these ads could leak into personals and other sections on the site. And they may be difficult, and expensive, to spot and remove.

This is likely to be a long, drawn-out battle, one that could change the freewheeling culture of craigslist, which has long allowed anyone to post most ads for free. The court clash will also test the very foundation of laws governing user-generated content such as classified ads, videos and blogs. After all, if craigslist can be held responsible for others’ ad postings, then other sites that allow consumers to post content could be held legally accountable, also. Fortunately for craigslist, it seems to have a lot of user support behind it (just scroll to the bottom ofthis blog).

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Reader Comments

gerrrg

May 21, 2009 02:34 AM

CL will not even make it to trial. Their claims are so specious, it won't make it past a prima facie case._____I use CL a lot myself, and it's filled with bad people, good people and bots. Lots of bots. What's interesting is that instead of using a strict captcha on all postings, it is limited to only certain sections. This ensures that the personals are flooded (more than half) with fake ads where you could end up handing your email address out to a spammer._____The NC AG should consider the question of whether or not CL - by virtue of not utilizing captcha for personals - is in fact abetting spamming. It begs the serious question of WHY CL won't use captcha on personals, when it works quite well in the other sections.

Dave

May 21, 2009 05:20 AM

It's a shame that pursuance of this issue should supercede both the Bill of Rights and more pressing agenda in these turbulent times. As a largely free and available bulletin board, Craigslist neither created the world's 'oldest profession' nor does it propagate it. It's just the messenger upon which the perpetrators operate. Perhaps a stone tablet and chisel are more in tune with this wasteful showboating done at taxpayers expense. Save the world on somebody else's dime if you please. Mine remains stretched far to thinly and I'm not going to vote for some struting, posturing, grandstanding good ole boy for Governor. Go after the criminals and leave the first amendment alone.

Steve Wildstrom

May 21, 2009 11:47 AM

The suit seems to have accomplished its goal--McMaster has thrown in the towel. True, he did it in a thoroughly weird statement in which he claimed victory, but there's no hiding the fact that it was abject surrender.

Tony

May 22, 2009 04:21 PM

Agree with Dave...

"Perhaps a stone tablet and chisel are more in tune with this wasteful showboating done at taxpayers expense. Save the world on somebody else's dime if you please. Mine remains stretched far to thinly and I'm not going to vote for some struting, posturing, grandstanding good ole boy for Governor. Go after the criminals and leave the first amendment alone."

brandon

July 7, 2009 02:55 AM

"The NC AG should consider the question of whether or not CL - by virtue of not utilizing captcha for personals - is in fact abetting spamming"

ROFL are you kidding me? What elementary school did you drop out of to come to such a misinformed conclusion as that?

If you don't like getting bots and spam from personals ads on craigslist then don't be such a loser that you can't get laid without it being some 44 year old fat guy who claims to be a 19 year old girl.

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BusinessWeek writers Peter Burrows, Cliff Edwards, Olga Kharif, Aaron Ricadela, Douglas MacMillan, and Spencer Ante dig behind the headlines to analyze what’s really happening throughout the world of technology. One of the first mainstream media tech blogs, Tech Beat covers everything from tech bellwethers like Apple, Google, and Intel and emerging new leaders such as Facebook to new technologies, trends, and controversies.

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