My name is danah boyd and I'm a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research, a Research Assistant Professor in Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University, and a Fellow at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society. Buzzwords in my world include: privacy, context, youth culture, social media, big data. I use this blog to express random thoughts about whatever I'm thinking.

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How Censoring Craigslist Helps Pimps, Child Traffickers, and Other Abusive Scumbags

[Originally posted at Huffington Post]

For the last 12 years, I’ve dedicated immense amounts of time, money, and energy to end violence against women and children. As a victim of violence myself, I’m deeply committed to destroying any institution or individual leveraging the sex-power matrix that results in child trafficking, nonconsensual prostitution, domestic violence, and other abuses. If I believed that censoring Craigslist would achieve these goals, I’d be the first in line to watch them fall. But from the bottom of my soul and the depths of my intellect, I believe that the current efforts to censor Craigslist’s “adult services” achieves the absolute opposite. Rather than helping those who are abused, it fundamentally helps pimps, human traffickers, and others who profit off of abusing others.

On Friday, under tremendous pressure from US Attorneys General and public advocacy groups, Craigslist shut down its “Adult Services” section. There is little doubt that this space has been used by people engaged in all sorts of illicit activities, many of which result in harmful abuses. But the debate that has ensued has centered on the wrong axis, pitting protecting the abused against freedom of speech. What’s implied in public discourse is that protecting potential victims requires censorship; thus, anti-censorship advocates are up in arms attacking regulators for trying to curtail first amendment rights. While I am certainly a proponent of free speech online, I find it utterly depressing that these groups fail to see how this is actually an issue of transparency, not free speech. And how this does more to hurt potential victims than help.

If you’ve ever met someone who is victimized through trafficking or prostitution, you’ll hear a pretty harrowing story about what it means to be invisible and powerless, feeling like no one cares and no one’s listening. Human trafficking and most forms of abusive prostitution exist in a black market, with corrupt intermediaries making connections and offering “protection” to those who they abuse for profit. The abused often have no recourse, either because their movements are heavily regulated (as with those trafficked) or because they’re violating the law themselves (as with prostitutes).

The Internet has changed the dynamics of prostitution and trafficking, making it easier for prostitutes and traffickers to connect with clients without too many layers of intermediaries. As a result, the Internet has become an intermediary, often without the knowledge of those internet service providers (ISPs) who are the conduits. This is what makes people believe that they should go after ISPs like Craigslist. Faulty logic suggests that if Craigslist is effectively a digital pimp whose profiting off of online traffic, why shouldn’t it be prosecuted as such?

The problem with this logic is that it fails to account for three important differences: 1) most ISPs have a fundamental business – if not moral – interest in helping protect people; 2) the visibility of illicit activities online makes it much easier to get at, and help, those who are being victimized; and 3) a one-stop-shop is more helpful for law enforcement than for criminals. In short, Craigslist is not a pimp, but a public perch from which law enforcement can watch without being seen.

#1: Internet Services Providers have a fundamental business interest in helping people.

When Internet companies profit off of online traffic, they need their clients to value them and the services they provide. If companies can’t be trusted – especially when money is exchanging hands – they lose business. This is especially true for companies that support peer-to-peer exchange of money and goods. This is what motivates services like eBay and Amazon to make it very easy for customers to get refunded when ripped off. Craigslist has made its name and business on helping people connect around services and while there are plenty of people who use its openness to try to abuse others, Craigslist is deeply committed to reducing fraud and abuse. It’s not always successful – no company is. And the more freedom that a company affords, the more room for abuse. But what makes Craigslist especially beloved is that is run by people who truly want to make the world a better place and who are deeply committed to a healthy civic life.

I have always been in awe of Craig Newmark, Craigslist’s founder and now a “customer service rep” with the company. He’s made a pretty penny off of Craigslist, so what’s he doing with it? Certainly not basking in the Caribbean sun. He’s dedicated his life to public service, working with organizations like Sunlight Foundation to increase government accountability and using his resources and networks to help out countless organizations like Donors Choose, Kiva, Consumer Reports, and Iraq/Afghani Vets of America. This is the villain behind Craigslist trying to pimp out abused people?

Craigslist is in a tremendous position to actually work _with_ law enforcement, both because it’s in their economic interests and because the people behind it genuinely want to do good in this world. This isn’t an organization dedicated to profiting off of criminals, hosting servers in corrupt political regimes to evade responsibility. This is an organization with both the incentives and interest to actually help. And they have a long track record of doing so.

#2: Visibility makes it easier to help victims.

If you live a privileged life, your exposure to prostitution may be limited to made-for-TV movies and a curious dip into the red light district of Amsterdam. You are most likely lucky enough to never have known someone who was forced into prostitution, let alone someone who was sold by or stolen from their parents as a child. Perhaps if you live in San Francisco or Las Vegas, you know a high-end escort who has freely chosen her life and works for an agency or lives in a community where she’s highly supported. Truly consensual prostitutes do exist, but the vast majority of prostitution is nonconsensual, either through force or desperation. And, no matter how many hip-hop songs try to imply otherwise, the vast majority of pimps are abusive, manipulative, corrupt, addicted bastards. To be fair, I will acknowledge that these scumbags are typically from abusive environments where they too are forced into their profession through circumstances that are unimaginable to most middle class folks. But I still don’t believe that this justifies their role in continuing the cycle of abuse.

Along comes the Internet, exposing you to the underbelly of the economy, making visible the sex-power industry that makes you want to vomit. Most people see such cesspools online and imagine them to be the equivalent of a crack house opening up in their gated community. Let’s try a different metaphor. Why not think of it instead as a documentary movie happening real-time where you can actually do something about it?

Visibility is one of the trickiest issues in advocacy. Anyone who’s worked for a non-profit knows that getting people to care is really, really hard. Movies are made in the hopes that people will watch them and do something about the issues present. Protests and marathons are held in the hopes of bringing awareness to a topic. But there’s nothing like the awareness that can happen when it’s in your own backyard. And this is why advocates spend a lot of time trying to bring issues home to people.

Visibility serves many important purposes in advocacy. Not only does it motivate people to act, but it also shines a spotlight on every person involved in the issue at hand. In the case of nonconsensual prostitution and human trafficking, this means that those who are engaged in these activities aren’t so deeply underground as to be invisible. They’re right there. And while they feel protected by the theoretical power of anonymity and the belief that no one can physically approach and arrest them, they’re leaving traces of all sorts that make them far easier to find than most underground criminals.

#3: Law enforcement can make online spaces risky for criminals.

Law enforcement is always struggling to gain access to underground networks in order to go after the bastards who abuse people for profit. Underground enforcement is really difficult and it takes a lot of time to invade a community and build enough trust to get access to information that will hopefully lead to the dens of sin. While it always looks so easy on TV, there’s nothing easy or pretty about this kind of work. The Internet has given law enforcement more data than they even know what to do with, more information about more people engaged in more horrific abuses than they’ve ever been able to obtain through underground work. It’s far too easy to mistake more data for more crime and too many Aspiring Governors use the increase of data to spin the public into a frenzy about the dangers of the Internet. The increased availability of data is not the problem; it’s a godsend for getting at the root of the problem and actually helping people.

When law enforcement is ready to go after a criminal network, they systematically set up a sting, trying to get as many people as possible, knowing that whoever they have underground will immediately lose access the moment they act. The Internet changes this dynamic, because it’s a whole lot easier to be underground online, to invade networks and build trust, to go after people one at a time, to grab victims as they’re being victimized. It’s a lot easier to set up stings online, posing as buyers or sellers and luring scumbags into making the wrong move. All without compromising informants.

Working with ISPs to collect data and doing systematic online stings can make an online space more dangerous for criminals than for victims because this process erodes the trust in the intermediary, the online space. Eventually, law enforcement stings will make a space uninhabitable for criminals by making it too risky for them to try to operate there. Censoring a space may hurt the ISP but it does absolutely nothing to hurt the criminals. Making a space uninhabitable by making it risky for criminals to operate there – and publicizing it – is far more effective. This, by the way, is the core lesson that Giuliani’s crew learned in New York. The problem with this plan is that it requires funding law enforcement.

Using the Internet to combat the sex-power industry.

It makes me scream when I think of how many resources have been used attempting to censor Craigslist instead of leveraging it as a space for effective law enforcement. During the height of the moral panic over sexual predators on MySpace, I had the fortune of spending a lot of time with a few FBI folks and talking to a whole lot of local law enforcement. I learned a scary reality about criminal activity online. Folks in law enforcement know about a lot more criminal activity than they have the time to pursue. Sure, they focus on the Big players, going after the massive collectors of child pornography who are most likely to be sex offenders than spending time on the small-time abusers. But it was the medium-time criminals that gnawed at them. They were desperate for more resources so that they could train more law enforcers, pursue more cases, and help more victims. The Internet had made it a lot easier for them to find criminals, but that didn’t make their jobs any easier because they were now aware of how many more victims they were unable to help. Most law enforcement in this area are really there because they want to help people and it kills them when they can’t help everyone.

There’s a lot more political gain to be had demonizing profitable companies than demanding more money be spent (and thus, more taxes be raised) supporting the work that law enforcement does. Taking something that is visible and making it invisible makes a politician look good, even if it does absolutely nothing to help the victims who are harmed. It creates the illusion of safety, while signaling to pimps, traffickers, and other scumbags that their businesses are perfectly safe as long as they stay invisible. Sure, many of these scumbags have an incentive to be as visible as possible to reach as many possible clients as possible, and so they will move on and invade a new service where they can reach clients. And they’ll make that ISP’s life hell by putting them in the spotlight. And maybe they’ll choose an offshore one that American law enforcement can do nothing about. Censorship online is nothing more than whack-a-mole, pushing the issue elsewhere or more underground.

Censoring Craigslist will do absolutely nothing to help those being victimized, but it will do a lot to help those profiting off of victimization. Censoring Craigslist will also create new jobs for pimps and other corrupt intermediaries, since it’ll temporarily make it a whole lot harder for individual scumbags to find clients. This will be particularly devastating for the low-end prostitutes who were using Craigslist to escape violent pimps. Keep in mind that occasionally getting beaten up by a scary john is often a whole lot more desirable for many than the regular physical, psychological, and economic abuse they receive from their pimps. So while it’ll make it temporarily harder for clients to get access to abusive services, nothing good will come out of it in the long run.

If you want to end human trafficking, if you want to combat nonconsensual prostitution, if you care about the victims of the sex-power industry, don’t cheer Craigslist’s censorship. This did nothing to combat the cycle of abuse. What we desperately need are more resources for law enforcement to leverage the visibility of the Internet to go after the scumbags who abuse. What we desperately need are for sites like Craigslist to be encouraged to work with law enforcement and help create channels to actually help victims. What we need are innovative citizens who leverage new opportunities to devise new ways of countering abusive industries. We need to take this moment of visibility and embrace it, leverage it to create change, leverage it to help those who are victimized and lack the infrastructure to get help. What you see online should haunt you. But it should drive you to address the core problem by finding and helping victims, not looking for new ways to blindfold yourself. Please, I beg you, don’t close your eyes. We need you.

[As always, my views on my blog do not necessary reflect the opinons of any institution with which I'm affiliated. They are mine and mine alone.]

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22 comments to How Censoring Craigslist Helps Pimps, Child Traffickers, and Other Abusive Scumbags

  • I was reading Harvey Milk’s Wikipedia entry last night. It struck me how much the anti gay establishment hurt themselves by driving homosexuality underground.

    The military expelled gays and they took refuge in San Francisco because that’s where the Navy returned them to and they were reluctant to go back to face the shame in their hometowns.

    This created the largest block vote for gays concentrated in one area.

    Then the illegality of having homosexual sex in one’s home with a consenting partner drove the gays out into the parks where sexual encounters might still be illicit but didn’t lose one their home.

    There were more examples but the point is that the less transparency the more likely it is that our aims are counter-productive.

    I don’t wish to equate gays with your subject because I’m completely comfortable with homosexuality but merely use the lesson of history because they both cross that line between secrecy and privacy.

  • Christine

    Danah, I am so glad someone as influential as you are has addressed this issue in a timely fashion. I am opposed to the actions of the Attorneys General and believe that removing the “erotic services” listings from Craigslist will push a black market farther underground, and less information is ALWAYS worse. This goes for law enforcement, but also for those who are more likely to police the market from within (it was always possible in “erotic services” to flag a user to Craiglist as appearing underage or for other suspicious activity).

    Just because a market activity is illegal doesn’t mean it isn’t happening. This reminds me of the recent feature story in Seattle’s Stranger, reporting on a dangerous additive showing up in cocaine. The article highlighted the fact that illicit drug users don’t get good information about changes in the market; this leads to bad drug policy and hurts all of us.

    Although I’m not advocating drug use, like the issue of prostitution and human trafficking, this is a public health issue. Frankly, it seems inhumane to shut down avenues of information for people who may get hurt, and this goes hand in hand with your first point: these ISPs are helping people, giving them a platform on which to share information. Shame on policymakers for not being able to see this.

  • Bruce

    Danah,

    Nice post. You make some very strong, valid arguments against what the attorneys general did, but it is important to bear in mind that Craigslist censored itself. They were not forced to close down that section of their site – they were pressured. If the matter had been taken to court, it is highly likely that a good attorney could have argued that they are no different to any other medium.

    The problem with Craigslist specifically is that it asserts that it screens these kinds of adverts before they are placed, and yet has offered no substantive proof of that and has not shown any evidence that its efforts have helped even one victim of this heinous crime.

    Craigslist could have done a lot to save itself a lot of grief by either:
    a) Acting like any other classified advertising medium without the assertion that the adverts are screened; or
    b) Providing evidence of the efforts that it has undertaken to screen these adverts and worked with law enforcement to provide examples of how it has facilitated the apprehension of some of these scumbags.

    The problem is that these adverts account for 1/3rd of Craigslist’s revenue and it is not showing any evidence that the revenue it has generated has been used for the social good, despite claiming the contrary.

    As I said, Craigslist chose to censor itself. No one forced it into censorship. I’m left wondering if they decided to go that route because they really have done nothing to help…

  • Kethryvis

    Danah, you make so many good points here. This is somewhat timely for me; finally, i’ve been able to start researching my Master’s thesis in earnest, using LiveJournal as a fieldsite to explore stakeholder relations in Web 2.0. i’ve been spending the last several weeks reading through all of the posts and comments surrounding the Great Strikethrough of 2007 and how so many people brought up one of the same arguments you have here; it’s fine if you want to kick these folks out of your playground, but that just means they’ll either a) go find another playground to play in that you can’t find, or b) will come back to your playground but so disguised you won’t be able to find them. Working with law enforcement is so much the way to go, but not only does it take law enforcement, it takes the service providers actually wanting to do the work, instead of the quick-and-dirty-CYA approach.

    When we drive things underground, we only make them stronger. When we bring things out into the light and expose them for what they are, they lose their power and become weakened. i see that three years hasn’t changed anything in this regard when it comes to the internet, though i’m not surprised. Though i wonder how long it will take before people catch a clue on this.

  • One of my neighbours is a service provider. She is independent and an individual with a keen political mind. She scoffs at the cowering of Craigslist to a puritanical push to censor itself. She is not a victim. She is a business woman who has chosen her own path. She also volunteers as a monitor for Craigslist ads. She tells me she has never encountered any erotic ads involving minors. However, she is very concerned that American prudery will cause waves into the more accepting Canadian climate. This action by Craigslist is a reaction not to the accusations of ‘trafficking’ or ‘victimization’ but to the anti-pleasure, anti-independence of the religious right. Threatening the livelihood of thousands of independent women is not going to rid the world of them but it will make their life options more difficult and threaten their livelihoods and independence.

  • Real transparency can only happen through legalization of prostitution and I don’t mean legalization saddled with so many restrictions that it can’t operate. I mean legalization that brings the same kind of protections, visibility, and legal rights as other mainstream commerce.

    Keeping prostitution illegal delivers prostitutes right into the eager hands of the sleazy criminal underworld who will abuse and exploit them. Those who oppose legalization are, therefore, accomplices to the abuse (regardless of all the lofty righteous rhetoric to the contrary).

    Those who protested Craig’s List are anti-prostitution crusaders, self-serving politicians, and sensationalistic mainstream press. Collectively, they couldn’t muster enough compassion for women and children to fill a thimble.

  • AndrĂ©

    Outright legalisation of prostitution is really the best way to make women safer. Prostitutes in Germany, for instance, typically belong to a labour union and get health benefits, as well as access to regular testing and collective bargaining agreements. They also pay taxes, instead of giving their money to a pimp. At present, the women also benefit from a host of anti-pimping laws that constrain the prostitute’s employers (i.e. they can charge a flat fee for a hotel room for a night but cannot force the women to pay a percentage of their income. Also, it removes some of the stigmatisation attached to sex workers, instead allowing them to report unsafe working conditions without fear of violent reprisal from a pimp. I can’t see how a system with legal prostitution would in any way be worse than the present set-up.

  • The best was to stop the abuses from happening is to legalize and regulate the paid sex industry.

  • Jesse

    Good analysis. However I would suggest clarification on what is truly consensual activity between adults. Prostitution arising from “desperation” is still consensual, just as robbery out of “desperation” is also a choice. In neither case was the individual coerced into making that decision. Sad and tragic that such choices are sometimes made in difficult situations, but very different from coercion.

  • AndrĂ©

    Prostitution arising from desperation, when people do it, is generally the least bad option they have available to them. From a societal standpoint, I’d rather have someone do that than armed robbery. And if you think about it, of all the things you can give someone, an orgasm is hardly a bad one.

    and really, it ain’t nobody’s business if you do.

  • Bill

    Hi, thanks for your post. I wonder whether with your expertise you can answer questions I have as a man who frequents prostitutes.

    I see Asian prostitutes in Brooklyn, NY. I go to their places (that is, apartments kept for the purpose), they don’t come to mine. I found them on Craigslist. I pay $140 for an hour, about once a month. Many of the experiences I have with them are, well, sensational.

    I’m consistently impressed by how comfortable they are, how easily they make me feel comfortable, and how much room there is for real warmth and personality. They are from Beijing or Hong Kong or Seoul and they have been here five years or five months or five days. I don’t imagine they have easy lives or grew up with good opportunities. But they really don’t seem to regard themselves as victims, and I haven’t seen reason to see them that way. They can’t like everything about the career, but that doesn’t mean they can’t find any pleasure in it. I happen to believe I’m generally well liked by them and get very good treatment because of it.

    I hasten to acknowledge, however, that my knowledge and experience are limited to a small random corner of a global business, that I have only a customer’s-eye viewpoint, and that I don’t know how the businesses are run or the life stories of the women involved.

    What do you know about how enterprises like the one I frequent are operated? It seems like consensual prostitution to me; am I wrong?

  • Ian

    Prostitution and the sex trade is used in many ways, sometimes even as a defence against intrusion. In that sense anybody who presents any offensive material as a means of defence becomes suspect and should be avoided.

    Historically law enforcement was called upon by the people when required to restore a situation to an acceptable norm. Or regulations were enacted which generally legalised particular norms in favour of particular groups. More often on a different level, morality and ethics create codes of conduct which guided people without reference to the law, forming cultural norms as it were. Those two issues are not unexpectedly interwoven in the case made, so they need to be clearly recognized.

    This brings me to what appears to be an underlying assumption within the presented argument which I believe it would be valuable to explore.

    The thread of that assumption is that it is correct to data mine any information posted on the internet including that of people who have nothing to do with the reason for the data mining. On the other hand data mining all internet data without reason looking for patterns which may be of use also becomes acceptable.

    If those methods are accepted how do the moral principles of privacy exist within the internet worlds?

    I feel the question does not do justice to the various moral values existing across different cultures utilising cyberspace.

    Ian

  • Bill

    You write, “the vast majority of prostitution is nonconsensual, either through force or desperation.” What is the evidence for this?

    Perhaps you think it’s obvious. Please see “Inquiry fails to find single trafficker who forced anybody into prostitution,” an article in the Guardian from October 2009 detailing an apparently well-funded and diligent police investigation into UK sex workers that failed to find a single case of coercion. The url is http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2009/oct/20/government-trafficking-enquiry-fails

  • Bill, aparently you did not take the time to read the line you yourself quoted. Coercion is only one element of nonconsensual. Along with force, desperation is also mentioned, and obviously this is not something a police inquiry would be likely to find.

    What should be self-evident is that any nonconsensual sex is immoral (and should therefore be outlawed). A prerequisite of consent is the meeting of seeming equals. Where there is no equality there can be no consent (hence the restrictions on superiors, on minors, on incest). If one is paying and the other is being paid, there is no equality. As simple as that.

  • Thanks for the link, Bill. I hadn’t seen that news item before. I was actually pleased to see that the Guardian has other excellent articles that convincingly challenge the strategy to attack craigslist.

    As for Aryeh’s comment that selling sex out of desperation is immoral, I would have to ask just precisely what constitutes desperation. I work because I have become very fond of living and my paycheck just happens to finance my survival, providing me with the means to pay for food and a place to live. Does that make my job immoral? Hardly.

    And the idea that both parties have to be “equals” for it to be consensual is utter nonsense. Money is nothing more than a medium to facilitate commerce, so suggesting that someone who is being paid is not acting voluntarily is ludicrous. I work for a someone who is very rich. Does that mean I am not there consensually? Of course, not. On the flip side, is the guy I pay to mow my lawn not there of his own free will?

    When a prostitute is snared by the law, it would be highly unlikely for her to brag about how she’s selling sex because it’s the best paying job around. Instead, she’s going to claim to be a victim of traffickers or of circumstance in order to gain sympathy and avoid punishment. It’s from that context that statistics are gathered which are then used to support the argument that all prostitutes are victims.

    Nonetheless, the supposition that some (or even most) prostitutes don’t have many other options to earn a living doesn’t justify any action that brings misery, legislative harassment, and unsafe working conditions to those who are there by choice.

    Attacking craiglist accomplished absolutely nothing to advance the welfare of women and children. Not one single solitary thing.

  • Perry

    “Censoring Craigslist will also create new jobs for pimps and other corrupt intermediaries.” Really?

    My two cents: censoring Craig’s List doesn’t change anything ‘cept line-items on a politico’s resume.

    Prostitution is a product of who and what we are, not the means by which we realize it. Missing the forest for the trees, here.

  • Lukas

    I think this an excellent article, both with regards to writing style and message, but I am confused by the unusual use of the term “ISP” in this context. An ISP provides access to the Internet. I would call Craigslist an online service or web service or website, but not an ISP.

  • Re: ISP – it’s because I screwed up. When I originally wrote this, I was talking about both ISPs and social media services and then I ended up collapsing it to just say ISPs rather than including both ISPs and OSPs. And since it’s out there, I didn’t fix it. But yes, this is my mistake.

  • Thought provoking and eye opening Dana. Thank you

  • I’ve read several posts and comments on the internet that claim this isn’t a First Amendment issue and that Craig’s List shut down its adult section by its own choice and not because it was censored.

    First of all, to suggest that Craig’s List shut down voluntarily is preposterous. They were the target of an aggressive crusade that began back in 2008 and included not only a number of NGOs and the mainstream press, but also state officials threatening legal action. Surrendering to that kind of perpetual intimidation is hardly voluntary.

    Secondly, these groups are not just asking Craig’s List to comply out of a sense of civic duty. They are threatening lawsuits and actively campaigning to change the laws in a way that will deny First Amendment protection to classified ad sites like Craig’s List. Hearings are planned before the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security.

  • I’ve worked with sex workers in Chicago and in Africa, and while I agree with much of this post, I would also like to see some evidence for the assertion that most sex workers do it non-consensually. I have never seen evidence for this assertion (or for the often-made opposing assertion, that most sex workers do it consensually). It is extremely hard to gather real data on the sex industry because selling sex is so illegal and so very stigmatized, and it doesn’t help to have so many people muddying the waters by throwing around unreal “statistics”.

  • Andrew

    Simple way to defeat this:
    Opponents of these politicians/prosecuters simply need to paint the picture of them as someone who “tried to shut down Craigslist”.

    Craigslist is the site with the most positive feelings of any on the US internet. You attack CL, you lose.

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