Craigslist says politicians will be sorry they drove it out of the sex-ad business.

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Sept. 17 2010 11:19 AM

Sulking From Gomorrah

Craigslist says politicians will be sorry they drove it out of the sex-ad business.

Craigslist founder, Craig Newmark (R) and Craigslist CEO Jim Buckmaster.

On Wednesday, the House Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security held a hearing on selling minors for sex. Lawmakers and activists spent most of the hearing talking about how bad the problem has become. But the last two witnesses scolded anti-trafficking crusaders for persecuting an online sex-ad purveyor and making the problem worse. The two witnesses represented that purveyor: Craigslist.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

Two weeks ago, under public pressure from state attorneys general, Craigslist closed its "adult services" section. At the time, I speculated that the company sought to prove what it had said all along: that if its sex-ad business were shut down, buyers and sellers would relocate to other venues that did less to screen ads for sexual abuse. Its testimony at Wednesday's hearing confirms this speculation. Essentially, its message to the committee was: We told you so. Here's what the company's representatives said.

1. You won't have Craigslist to kick around anymore. "In craigslist, law enforcement and NGO advocates had a highly responsive partner that listened to and was willing to meet with all concerned parties," Elizabeth McDougall, the company's outside counsel, told the committee. Now you don't. So there!

2. The media spearheaded our persecution to protect their ad business. "The incidence of crime relating to use of craigslist is extremely low," said William Powell, the company's director of customer service and law enforcement relations. "However, despite craigslist's best efforts, it is not and cannot be zero, and any incidence of crime across tens of millions of people will generate enough crime stories to keep the newspapers, who compete with us in the classifieds business, busy reporting." Ouch!

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3. You're forcing sex ads back into public areas where everyone will see them. Powell testified that Craigslist set up its sex-ads section nine years ago "at the request of craigslist users tired of seeing adult services ads mixed into the personals categories." Now the sex ads will get mixed back in. Nice going.

4. Sex ads are just shifting to other sites. "Craigslist is employing proprietary technical measures to force the migration of adult services ads from craigslist to other venues," McDougall testified. As a result, "traffic at other venues for adult service ads has risen significantly."

5. The other sites won't be as nice as we were. McDougall told the committee, "Migration of the relatively small percentage of total U.S. adult services advertising that had been posted on craigslist to less socially responsible venues uninterested in best practices is an unfortunate step backward in the fight against trafficking and exploitation." You'll be sorry you drove us out of the business, you zealots.

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    6. We told you this before, but you ignored us. McDougall testified that a year ago, "I participated in a number of calls with staff of the Attorneys General of various states, sharing data regarding the migration of ads for adult services from craigslist to other online venues in their particular states. We also shared summaries that contrasted craigslist ads and practices with adult advertising and practices in local media publications in the Attorney General's states." But did these politicians heed the data and the warning? Of course not. Now they'll have to grapple with the irresponsible sex-ad practices of those self-serving media outlets. The politicians and newspapers that blamed the problem on us will have to deal with the worsened problem and with each other. Serves them right. Like Slate on Facebook. Follow us on  Twitter. William Saletan's latest short takes on the news, via Twitter: