Craigslist becomes political pinata

The classified-ad site has been linked to some unfortunate incidents, most recently a Boston murder, and ambitious politicians are homing in.

This was originally posted at ZDNet's Between the Lines.

If you're a pol who wants to garner some headlines there's one easy route to news coverage: kick Craigslist .

Now it's South Carolina Attorney General Henry McMaster's turn (Techmeme, statement, letter to Craigslist). McMaster has informed Craigslist CEO Jim Buckmaster (see his reply) that he has to remove "the portions of the Internet site dedicated to South Carolina and its municipal regions which contain categories for and functions allowing for the solicitation of prostitution" in 10 days. If not, "criminal investigation and prosecution" are possible.

South Caroline AG's letter to Craigslist
Larry Dignan/ZDNet

As most of you are aware, Craigslist has been cited in a few unfortunate incidents, most recently a Boston murder of woman. The alleged murderer, Philip Markoff, found his victim via Craigslist. These incidents attract politicians like flames attract moths. Pols can't resist.

Let's recap Craigslist's bad run:

• Boston murder.
• New York murder.
• New York Times story on how Craigslist ads facilitate hookups.

Sex services ads aren't hard to find on Craigslist, but the company has been working with law enforcement to cut them down. Craigslist and some 40 or so attorneys general entered a joint statement six months ago, as Buckmaster has repeatedly noted. Most of Craigslist is comprised of folks just trying to sell run-of-the-mill items, rent apartments and the commerce of daily life.

However, none of the good activity will matter when Craigslist gets bad press every few weeks or so. It's a national splash every time Craigslist and prostitution are mentioned in the same sentence, even though you can find ads for personal services in your phone book and local newspaper.

Enter the pol and the attorney-general-to-governor formula. Attorney general finds headline-making issue, gets tough on the perps, issues a few statements and later runs for higher office. Elliot Spitzer was the master of chasing Wall Streeters around and landed as governor (we know how that one turned out).

McMaster is also pondering a run to be South Carolina governor. Now comes McMaster with his statement. Coincidence?

Attorney General Henry McMaster today called on the CEO of the Internet classified site "craigslist" to remove "the portions of the Internet site dedicated to South Carolina and its municipal regions which contain categories for and functions allowing for the solicitation of prostitution and the dissemination and posting of graphic pornographic material" within ten (10) days.

"If those South Carolina portions of the site are not removed," McMaster said, "the management of craigslist may be subject to criminal investigation and prosecution."

The issues here--whether South Carolina has a legal basis, and free speech--are fairly obvious, but the most obvious item appears to be political calculation.

Can you imagine the attention a perp walk featuring Buckmaster would get? You simply can't buy that airtime.

About the author

    Larry Dignan is editor in chief of ZDNet and editorial director of CNET's TechRepublic. He has covered the technology and financial-services industries since 1995.


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