Probably the last thing Craig Newmark ever imagined was that the little email list he started back in 1995 would one day be at the center of a controversy over prostitution, the First Amendment, and the future of the InterWebs. But 15 years later, Craigslist is in the thick of a dispute over whether its ad service is aiding and abetting prostitution, or merely an exercise in free speech.
The battle with Craigslist over its ads has been brewing for some time, thanks in part to highly publicized stories about the "Craigslist killer," Philip Markoff, who murdered three women one woman and robbed two others who were advertising massage services on the online classifieds site. (Though one has to wonder, if Markoff had found identical ads in a newspaper would anyone have thought to call him, say, the "Boston Globe Killer"?)
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Things really kicked into gear last year, when South Carolina state attorney general Henry McMaster made a stink, demanding Craigslist shut down its adult ads in his state. That resulted in an even stinkier response from Craigslist CEO Jim Buckmaster, which included a temporary restraining order against AG McMaster. They then proceeded to Indian leg wrestle over who owned the rights to the suffix "Master."
In May 2009, Craigslist compromised by kicking its Erotic Services category to the curb and creating a cleaner, more wholesome Adult Services category in its place. Craigslist also promised to monitor the ads more closely and to charge $10 per ad to keep out the riff raff and spammers.
Fast-forward to August 2010, when 17 state attorneys general collaborated on an open letter to Craiglist [PDF], asking it to drop its adult ads. The letter is a bit scant on proof of actual wrongdoing but makes up for it with extra helpings of dramatic rhetoric: