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Cook County: Craigslist's 'erotic' section must go

The sheriff of Chicago's Cook County has plans to file suit against Craigslist. The Web's largest classifieds section has already said it plans to crack down on prostitution ads.

Craigslist's San Francisco headquarters
Greg Sandoval/CNET News

Updated at 1:55 p.m. PST to include quotes from Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart, who was interviewed by CNET News.

Updated at 12:13 p.m. PST to include demands made in civil complaint filed by Cook County sheriff.

Updated at 12:13 p.m. PST to include comments from Craigslist.

The sheriff of Illinois' Cook County, which includes Chicago, filed suit in federal court Thursday against Craigslist, alleging that the Web's largest classifieds publication is "facilitating prostitution."

Sheriff Tom Dart has asked the court to force Craigslist to remove the Web publication's erotic section. Cook County also wants $100,000 in compensation for the man hours the county has had to pay police to investigate alleged criminal services being advertised on the site.

In an interview with CNET News following a press conference, Dart made clear that he isn't blaming Craigslist for prostitution in his county and said Craigslist is great for renting rooms or selling cars and hundreds of other legal uses.

But he said all the statistics shows Craigslist is the country's biggest marketing tool for the illegal sex trade and also makes it harder for law authorities to catch bad guys.

"I've said all along that I'm not blaming them for prostitution," Dart said. "What I am blaming them for is that one part of their site is being horribly misused. Either shut that part of the site down or put some real monitoring in place."

Craigslist, the Web's biggest publication of classified advertisements, promised in November to begin cracking down on ads for prostitution after coming under fire by several state attorneys general.

"Misuse of Craigslist to facilitate criminal activity is unacceptable, and we continue to work diligently to prevent it," said Susan MacTavish Best, a Craigslist spokeswoman. "Misuse of the site is exceptionally rare compared to how much the site is used for legal purposes. Regardless, any misuse of the site is not tolerated on Craigslist.

"Craigslist is an extremely unwise choice for those intent on committing crimes since criminals inevitably leave an electronic trail to themselves," Best continued. "On a daily basis, we are being of direct assistance to police departments and federal authorities nationwide."

Best said that Craigslist managers have yet to receive a copy of the complaint issued by the Cook County Sheriff's Office.

As for its potential defense in the sheriff's civil case, Craigslist can claim to be immune from liability under section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which says: "No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider. "

Dart, who is sheriff of one of the most populous counties in the United States with about 5.3 million residents, said he has asked for help from Craigslist and done everything possible to negotiate with managers there. He said he held off filing suit to see whether the deal between the state attorney general would have any impact on the problem.

"Near as we can tell they have a total of about 24 employees," Dart said. "They freely admit that their policing and monitoring is all done by the participants. As I said, we can all act like we're idiots here but that gets old after a while. Are you trying to tell me that the people going to a prostitution site are going to be so horribly offended that they're going to register a complaint? No they're not.

"Just to prove my point we put our own ads on Craigslist," Dart said. "One of them read '15-year-old looking for sex,' and it got three hits including one from a convicted sex offender. We put up '14-year old looking for sex.' Nobody filed any complaints and that one was left up. So its clear there's no policing going on. Craigslist, part of your site is being misued. Work with me to rectify it. Monitor it and I'll go away."

CNET's Declan McCullagh contributed to this report