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The Craigslist Dilemma: More Than Just Sex

For those of you who don’t frequent Craigslist Adult Services section, life was perhaps pretty uneventful last weekend. However, if you live in the US and are a patron of that section, you would have been deeply disappointed to see that instead of usual erotic postings, there is now a black banner that reads “Censored”. Our friend, a law-abiding citizen who likes to have short steamy affairs with tourists visiting New York, was furious. “Mr. Big” – his alter ego — had gotten used to using the section to post his availability and interest.

Unfortunately “Mr. Big” is not the only one who uses Craigslist’s adult section: pimps, sex offenders, rapists, child molesters and traffickers also use it. Under assumed names, they all post advertisements for sex services that are impossible to discern as prostitution except by those looking for it. In fact, Craigslist has become the site of choice in America for such advertisements. A little over a year ago, a furor started gathering momentum on the Internet as people began to take two highly polarized positions: on the one side stood human and women’s rights activists armed with stories of sexual abuse and rape ‘facilitated’ by Craigslist; on the other stood freedom of speech activists who believed that the Founding Fathers of the America would not approve of a blanket ban on the ability to arrange sexual liaisons.

But the current debate is missing the point. The Craigslist issue is not about freedom of speech, nor is it about sex offenders. It’s not even about the money (even though Craigslist earns millions through adult services, its founder Craig Newmark and the company have held customer and community service principles close to heart). It goes to the core of a much bigger problem that is looming in front of all of us watching the line between our cyber and physical lives blurring: identity.

We don’t live in “real” versus “virtual” worlds, but rather live on-line and off-line, with both equally real parts of our lives. Off-line, we’ve developed institutions and laws that attempt to protect us from crimes such as rape and forced prostitution. One of the pillars of law enforcement is the institution of one identity per person, which means that ultimately our activity should be traceable and can be persecuted. With improved identification, the police can now track everything from our location (via our phone) to our travels (via passport control biometrics systems).

Online, however, we have no such restraint–and that is not necessarily a bad thing. One of the great things about the Web is that we can experiment with our identities and we can be anonymous at times. There is no need to regress to the constraints of the off-line world, but that still leaves the ugly problem of tracing the sex offenders and traffickers who post on Craigslist. Last year, Craigslist enforced a manual check of every adult listing by a lawyer and rejected 700,000 advertisements in the process. It also forced anyone posting in the section to provide a working number. But of course, many thousands still slipped through the cracks resulting in unforgivable abuse of women and children.

What we need is a system to identify people when the Web is used for activities that could potentially harm others. The company facilitating such activities should require users to authenticate their identity and in return, the company would commit to sharing this information only with law enforcement authorities. So our friend would remain ‘Mr. Big’ in his posts, but Craigslist would know his real identity (perhaps using something as simple as his Facebook login or as complicated as a social security number validated against government servers). The law would regulate corporations to ensure that this information was always kept under lock and key. Would such a strategy stop sex offenders? Unlikely. But it would deter them from posting on Craigslist and by doing so, their illicit activities would be severely disrupted. In addition, if all other companies with adult sections implemented the same rule, then their users would mostly be reduced to those who having adulterous or steamy liasons: both freedom of speech and citizen protection would be upheld. Censoring Craigslist’s Adult Services section is not the answer to this problem of rape and sex slavery, but given that the site is part of the chain of events, it is necessary to have a workaround that mitigates its role in the problem.

For now, everyone is waiting to see what Craigslist will do next. The fact that it used the word ‘Censored’ has been generating a lot of debate on the Web. Did the company mean to imply that freedom of speech was being muffled by the public outcry (no court in the country would force Craigslist to ban the service because it goes against the constitution’s freedom of speech principles)? Perhaps that was indeed the reason the word ‘Censored’ was used. But we don’t want to censor Craigslist, we want to work with it to create a better system of identifying and persecuting those who commit heinous crimes in society.

Ayesha and Parag Khanna explore human-technology co-evolution and its implications for society, business and politics at The Hybrid Reality Institute.


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