Members of the House of Representatives who helped push through the Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Act have directed a letter to Craigslist.com, demanding accountability and information relating to the site’s “Adult Services” ads.
Apparently, its decision to delete the entire Erotic Services section in response to pressure from state Attorneys General was not enough for these representatives, who demand to know how the site will be punished if any further ads for illegal services are published. They also demand a ‘sit down’ with Craigslist.com representatives, to hash out their concerns.
All of this demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding about how federal law protects interactive computer service providers like Craigslist.com. In case anybody forgot, Craigslist.com does not create, review or approve the ads posted to the site. It merely provides an online venue for third party users to post classified ads of their choosing. If service providers like Craigslist.com were held responsible for the content of material posted by third parties, the Internet would cease to function. Hosts could never review and approve every page of every website they host, to ensure that no illegal or inappropriate material appeared thereon. Search engines could not effectively deliver search results if each result needed to be scrubbed for compliance with 50 different states’ laws (and federal law to boot). Recognizing this reality, Congress passed Section 230 to the Communications Decency Act, 47 U.S.C. §230, immunizing online service providers from liability based on the content of user submitted material.
This immunity is seemingly ignored with greater frequency, when it is politically popular to do so. This is a disturbing trend. While Craigslist.com buckled to the pressure from the state AG’s to remove the Erotic Services section, it drew the line with South Carolina’s request to block all pornographic material from the state. The site may have to draw the line again, in the latest Congressional attempt to impose liability for violence against women who post escort ads. While this is certainly a sympathetic, hot-button issue sure to garner votes from constituents, the threat of imposing liability against a service provider like Craigslist.com generates potentially disastrous impacts for online communications. Stand your ground, Craigslist! The consequences of giving in are too important for the rest of us.