Craigslist: It's hard to be a pimp in 570 cities

The Web's biggest classified ads service is cleaning up its act -- or, at least, making a show of it -- by swapping "erotic" ads for "adult" ones. But will anything really change?

So Craigslist bowed to intense pressure and kicked its controversial "Erotic Services" ad category to the curb this week. Instead, it's unveiling a new ad category called "Adult Services" to take its place.

Why "Adult Services"? Because calling it "Hookers & Blow" might send the wrong message.

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Over the last few weeks, even as more and more state attorneys general sharpened their knives, sensing an nice juicy turkey to carve up and serve to voters, Craigslist doggedly clung to its Erotic Services category, declaring it a free speech issue. Per the Craigslist FAQ:

Illegal activity is absolutely not welcome, and will not be tolerated. However, when it comes to legal conduct between consenting adults, we feel it is important to err on the side of respecting free speech and privacy rights, and to leave moral judgements to the greater wisdom of the Craigslist community, who are empowered through our flagging system.... For those who believe such ads should be banned by law, experts tell us that is a constitutional question which could be addressed by seeking an amendment to restrict free speech.

This may be the first time getting your candlesticks polished has been equated to free speech. I, for one, demand my First Amendment rights -- right now. And if you could make it a redhead with green eyes, even better.

Don't get me wrong. I'm a huge fan of that and many other amendments. Without free speech, I'd probably be cleaning toilets in some gulag. But as a non-governmental institution, Craigslist is not actually bound by the First Amendment. Like Facebook and any other private corporation, it can and does establish limits on what is acceptable content. And what it ultimately decided to do was change the name of the service and toss a few rules at it, in the hopes that all those angry AGs will go away.

So what exactly is the difference between Erotic Services and Adult? Good question.

For one thing, Craigslist plans to charge $10 for the first instance of each ad, $5 for a second go-round. (That'll scare off all those $2 hos.) That's twice the cost of phone verification fees the service was charging for Erotic Services listings. Another difference: These dollars will go directly into Craigslist's pockets, not to charity.

CEO Jim Buckmaster says he will hire a team to review all Adult Service ads before they post to ensure they don't violate Craigslist's terms of service, which forbid depictions of sex with an amusing degree of specificity (see Section 7b of the Terms of Use), as well as "illegal prostitution." So in other words, just legal prostitution -- licensed escort and massage services that appear in the Yellow Pages, for example -- will be allowed. Professionals only please, amateurs need not apply.

(Interestingly, the site's Terms of Use still say "Craigslist does not pre-screen or approve content." Maybe they need to hire a team to review the TOU.)

I don't consider myself a prude. If people want to spend their money on personal gratification of the hubba-hubba variety, I think that's their business. But the number of sites where people offer to trade sex for some consideration in kind is almost endless. (Adult FriendFinder, anyone?) IMHO, Craigslist is merely a convenient high-profile scapegoat.

This whole controversy hit the front burners thanks to Philip Markoff -- the alleged "Craigslist killer" who's accused of hiring three masseuses off Craigslist ads, robbing two of them, and murdering the other one. Despite the actual services the women were providing, I'd be surprised if their ads violated Craigslist's TOU. Even $3,000-an-hour escort services don't promise happy endings, as I'm sure Eliot Spitzer could tell you.

If someone can explain to me how reviewing ad copy and charging $10 is going to prevent this sort of thing from happening again, I'm all ears.

New York State AG Andrew Cuomo called Craigslist's response "half baked." I'm inclined to agree with him.

I predict there won't be a happy ending for anyone in this mess.

What a week: Holocaust deniers, closeted conservatives, blue-nosed censors, and online prostitutes. Got opinions on any or all of the above? Post your thoughts below or e-mail me: cringe@infoworld.com.

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