The successful campaign by 17 state attorneys general in America to persuade advertising website craigslist to “voluntarily” delete the “Adult Services” section of its website raises two interesting questions:
1. Why did they launch this campaign?
2. What does this approach mean for freedom of expression in the United States?
1. The letter (read here) from the attorneys general does not say and does not imply that the exploitation that they claim is reflected in the “adult services” section of craigslist was created by the existence of the site. The letter also does not seek to argue that the exploitation will cease to happen when the people behind these advertisements are forced to rely on a multitude of other outlets to publicise their services once craigslist has succumbed to the pressure.
The one, unmentioned (unmentionable?) problem that would be solved by the deletion of that section of the website, is the visibility of scale of the sex trade in the United States and the failures of the law and of law enforcement in dealing with the exploitation referred to by the highest legal officers in the 17 states in their letter.
If we assume that that the scale of the exploitation is as big as the attorneys general claim, this visibility is an embarrassment from a political perspective. From a law enforcement perspective, having that much evidence in one location, but without the will or resources to investigate or prosecute, this visibility is a major irritation. Closing the section of craigslist and sending those advertisements to a thousand other locations online will not solve the problem (indeed, it would obviously make investigation and prosecution vastly more difficult) but it will greatly help resolve a major political problem for elected law enforcement officials.
2. All US state attorneys general take an oath of office, which varies from state to state, but which normally includes an undertaking to support the Constitution of the United States. In their letter, the attorneys general are making an undeniable effort to create media pressure on a private company to decide what information is made available to the public, without once claiming that craigslist is acting illegally. Virtually the entire letter is written not as a legal analysis from legal professionals, but as a tabloid analysis to pander to tabloid headlines. Walking away from an interview after being accused of operating the “Walmart of child sex trafficking” is portrayed as an indication of guilt. It is difficult to imagine just how inadequate the work of the law enforcement authorities is, if criminals can freely use this “Walmart” in the apparent certainty that they will not be investigated, prosecuted and punished. The real problem that will be solved by craigslist’s self-censorship is the visibility of law enforcement failures.
If the most senior legal officials in 17 states, officials who have sworn an oath to support the United States Constitution — can exploit the press to require self-censorship, what is next? In this case, the attorneys general did not ask for new laws laws that would, by their analysis, help fight child sex trafficking. Instead, they exploited media hype to force a private company to make decisions on what private citizens could communicate. This will not be the last example of this approach and, with each “success” where the first amendment is circumvented by coercion, distortion and headlines, the tabloids and politicians will become a little bit braver and their demands will become a little bit more ambitious.
Joe McNamee is EU advocacy co-ordinator at European Digital Rights