Founded in 1995 by Craig Newmark as a way to tell San Francisco residents about cool local events, Craigslist has expanded to include cities in all 50 states and more than 50 countries.
There are 300 different Craigslist sites globally – 12 for Pennsylvania alone. During the first 10 years of its run, the Web site seemed like the perfect tool for advertising services and meeting local people with similar interests.
But now Craigslist is not so innocent. In fact, it’s becoming just the opposite as accusations about prostitution and discrimination bolster the argument that Craigslist is not just a way to make a new friend anymore.
In early 2006, the online forum was sued by a fair housing group known as the Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for running a housing post in July 2005 that stated, “African Americans and Arabians tend to clash with me so that won’t work out.” The case was dismissed on Nov. 14 after the judge declared that people have the right to self-publish on the Internet.
People have continued to post inflammatory remarks on the site, including recent posts in the “housing wanted” section stipulating that homosexuals and other minority groups are not encouraged to respond to certain messages.
While the judge may have dismissed this case, the public should not. Once we begin to tolerate discrimination in one medium, it is only a matter of time before it becomes acceptable everywhere.
Yet this criticism of the online forum seems almost mundane compared to the most recent attack on the site. Just this past year, there have been accusations that Craigslist not only condones, but promotes prostitution.
On Nov. 16, 104 men were arrested in Seattle on suspicion of patronizing a prostitute. Three quarters of the suspects were caught after responding to posts on the “erotic services” category on Craigslist.
According to an article in “The Seattle Times,” after complaints from many locals about the rampant prostitution in the area and following the arrest of seven women – including a 16-year-old girl – who had responded to an undercover police officer’s attempt to solicit sex, vice detectives then turned their attention to men.
They found that instead of roaming the streets for prostitutes, males respond to online and newspaper ads looking for sex. To make their ads believable, female detectives were photographed in flirty poses, phone lines were established and appointments were set up. The article then went on to quote Lt. Eric Sano, commander of the Seattle Police Department’s vice unit.
According to Sano, police discovered “a complete subculture” on Craigslist where men call themselves “hobbyists” and refer to the women whom they pay for sex as “providers.”
This should not come as a shock. Adding to the continuing Craigslist controversy is Michael Crook, founder of the Web site craigslist-perverts.org. Through this site, Crook poses as a college-aged female and convinces potential sexual partners to share details, such as contact information.
Crook then posts this information on his Web site as a means of outing potential sexual predators.
While the moral implications of Crook’s actions are questionable at best, the fact that this Web site even exists is further proof that Craigslist is the host of something gone very wrong. Based on the discrimination and prostitution accusations and the creation of an anti-Craigslist Web site, it would appear that Newmark’s creation is a hotbed for lies and sexual misappropriation – whether through misleading other posters or through actually engaging in sexual acts for payment. Combine this with the potentially racist advertisements and listings, and Craigslist has morphed from a simple Web site to one of the most controversial pages on the Internet.
These events are merely the beginning of what could be an entire change of culture on the Internet. Is prostitution OK if it’s online? Can we get away with racism on the World Wide Web? While we may not have answers to these questions immediately, one thing is certain: a Web site that began as a social networking tool has become much more dangerous.
Erica Palan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.