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AGs call on Craigslist to banish adult ads

Attorneys general from 17 states send a letter that asks the company to remove its adult services section due to ongoing ads they say promote prostitution and child trafficking.

A few ads from Craigslist's adult services section for Manhattan on Wednesday morning.
CNET staff via Craigslist

Craigslist's adult services section is under fire once again.

Attorneys general from 17 states sent a joint letter (PDF) on Tuesday that asks the site to immediately remove the section because it promotes prostitution and child trafficking.

In the letter to Craigslist CEO Jim Buckmaster and founder Craig Newmark, the attorneys general state that ads for both adult and child prostitutes are "rampant" on the site. And because Craigslist cannot or will not adequately screen these ads, the attorneys general said, the section should be taken down.

Asserting that women and children are being exploited by the ads, the attorneys general cited the case of two girls who said last month that they were trafficked for sex through the site. The two girls wrote an open letter to Craigslist that appeared in ads in The Washington Post and San Francisco Chronicle, in which they asked the company to remove the adult services section.

Craigslist responded to the girls' open letter in a blog post, in which it asked for police reports and further information so that it could investigate. The company stated that it works with law enforcement to go after people who break the law by misusing the site.

In another recent blog post, Craigslist touted its manual screening process. The company noted that since May 2009, all ads are screened by attorneys to make sure that they adhere to Craigslist's guidelines. The blog reported that 700,000 ads have been rejected since this process was implemented.

But Craigslist's screening process has failed to satisfy the attorneys general, who told the company in their letter that "your much-touted 'manual review' of Adult Services ads has failed to yield any discernible reduction in obvious solicitations."

The attorneys general also accuse the company of a "blame the victim" mentality, claiming that it has been putting the onus on victims and law enforcement by criticizing them for not providing Craigslist with police reports to document alleged crimes.

The state officials acknowledge that taking down adult ads would result in a loss of revenue for Craigslist. "No amount of money, however, can justify the scourge of illegal prostitution, and the suffering of the women and children who will continue to be victimized, in the market and trafficking provided by Craigslist," their letter states.

The 17 attorneys general who co-signed the letter hail from Arkansas, Connecticut, Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Maryland, Michigan, Missouri, Montana, New Hampshire, Ohio, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia.

In response to the letter, Craigslist spokeswoman Susan MacTavish Best sent the following statement to CNET:

"We strongly support the [desire of the] attorneys end trafficking in children and women, through the Internet or by any other means. We hope to work closely with them, as we are with experts at nonprofits and in law enforcement, to prevent misuse of our site in facilitation of trafficking, and to combat such crimes wherever they appear, online or offline."

Tuesday's letter follows a subpoena issued by Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal in May, in which he asked Craigslist for documents detailing its ad-screening process and the revenue it brings in from its adult services section.

The current focus is not new. Last year, several attorneys general met with Craigslist to discuss their concerns over the adult ads. Led by Blumenthal--who at the time said Craigslist operates an "online brothel"--the officials pressed the site to eliminate the adult section. In early 2009, the sheriff for the Chicago area filed a civil suit against Craigslist over what was then called the "erotic services" section, though a judge later threw out the suit.

Other events have also put Craigslist's adult ads under a microscope. Last year, Boston University medical student Philip Markoff was arrested on charges that he killed a woman he met on Craigslist. The so-called "Craigslist killer" was recently found dead in his jail cell after apparently committing suicide.

Updated at 12:30 p.m. PDT to include a response from Craigslist.