It’s been days, a lifetime in the world of online news, since Craigslist quietly placed a “censored” image over its “adult services” link yet the surprising move remains a hot topic. Was the move a dramatic concession by the pioneering ad-services site or strategic “check mate” move by an unpredictable company? Let’s take a look at the top 5 takeaways and potential implications of Craigslist’s decision.
Here are the top five takeaways, and potential implications, of the Craigslist decision:
1) Free Speech Remains Intact: The reason Craigslist had long been able to defend its right to carry the ads is that the law is clearly on its side. The federal Communications Decency Act protects Web sites against liability for what their users post on the sites. The company’s standing was reinforced just last year when a federal judge blocked South Carolina’s attorney general from prosecuting Craigslist executives for prostitution arrests stemming from listings on the site.
With a few days behind them to analyze Craigslist’s most recent move, many experts see the “censored” label as a sly dig at the attorney generals seeking to, critics would say, block free speech on the Internet. They conclude the very intentional choice of language and discrepancy by Craigslist means the socially-conscious company won’t back down from its stand.
2) But the Fight Goes On: If Craigslist does follow through with its decision and block the adult ads, the industry won’t just disappear from the Internet. Other sites may jump in seeing a potential for gain, and current sites such as Backpage.com owned by Village Voice Media will continue to grow. Craigslist’s actions also only apply to the U.S. section of the site, so the service remains intact globally.
Also vowing to continue the fight are a wide network of state attorney generals, largely led by two Democrats, Martha Coakley in Massachusetts and Richard Blumenthal in Connecticut. Both have stated since the decision that they plan to hold public hearings and look for legislative solutions to hold sites accountable, but experts predict they face a tough fight ahead. “There’s going to be a game of Whac-a-Mole to try to achieve this goal through censorship – information will keep popping up online,” John Palfrey, of Harvard Law School told the Boston Globe. “Strategically, you have to go to the root causes, and not just focus on the intermediaries, like the Phoenix or Craigslist, but directly on the wrongdoers.”
3) Financial Blow for Craigslist: Doubts about whether Craigslist is sincere in permanently deleting adult service ads from its site largely stem from the amount of money the company could lose should it let this business go. The site charges $10 to post and $5 to repost each ad, meaning the adult services section alone brings in about a third of Craigslist’s annual revenue, or almost $45 million, according to the Advanced Interactive Media Group.
4) Public Pressure Still Rules: Veteran political watcher and Washington insider Mike Allen immediately pinpointed the move as a result of a “quiet, low-budget syntheisis of GOVERNMENT, MEDIA, CELEBRITIES AND ADVOCACY GROUPS – a textbook pressure campaign that defeated an Internet powerhouse.” Indeed, public interest groups and government officials alike have orchestrated an ongoing drumbeat of negative publicity against the company, from Congressional briefings and White House meetings to full-page ads in the Washington Post and an Anderson Cooper-reported, “AC360″ investigation on CNN in August. Publicity went from bad to worse last April with the killing of 25-year old Julissa Brisman in New York, and the subsequent high-profile arrest of Philip Markoff who became known as the “Craigslist killer.” And just last month, 17 state attorney generals released a joint letter accusing the site of profiting from the “suffering of the women and children who continue to be victimized by Craigslist.”
5) Can A Company Play Non-Profit, with Two CEOs: Founder and “caretaker” Craig Newmaker has been just that for the company, its caretaker in every sense of the word. He’s no longer CEO, replaced by Jim Buckmaster, but has maintained a heavy hand in cultivating the company as an advocacy group and charity, not just a ‘dysfunctional corporate entity.’ Newmaker has donated nearly $84,000 to Democratic candidates since 2003, according to campaign tracker OpenSecrets.org, while Buckmaster has not made any donations. Buckmaster has been most vocal on the company blog about the debate, writing screeds upon screeds to defend the company’s free speech rights and social good against journalists, attorneys and public interest groups alike. Nonetheless, Craigslist is a company, one estimated to generate more than $120 million this year alone. Adult Services makes up almost one third of that amount.
No matter how hard they may try, what no supporter or critic can accurately foresee right now is which side will win. Or will Craigslist surprise us all once again and prove that social good and corporate profit can get along?