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Prostitution loses its sanctuary on Craigslist

Post by Patrick O'Callahan on Nov. 9, 2008 at 7:53 pm with No Comments »
November 9, 2008 7:53 pm

This editorial will appear in tomorrow’s print edition.

At Craigslist, the Wild West days of anonymous sex trafficking are coming to an end.

The company, to its credit, has signed a voluntary agreement with 40 states – including Washington – that will make it easy for police to track the pimps, prostitutes and johns who’ve flocked to the Web advertising service in recent years.

It’s voluntary, because courts have held that Craigslist is comparable to a telephone company – a neutral conduit of information that can’t be held responsible for the content posted on its sites.

But the company is stepping up to the problem of sex trafficking. Under its agreement with the states, anyone advertising in Craigslist’s "erotic services" section will have to provide a working phone number and pay a fee using a traceable credit card number. Police will be able to easily subpoena the information.

A paradox here is that Craigslist has made both prostitution and police sting operations more efficient.

For people in the sex trade, it’s been the new "street." Would-be customers can anonymously peruse "erotic services" ads posted – complete with photos – of hookers. Hookers can choose where to make connections. The convenience is hard to beat.

For the police, too. The nature of Craigslist makes sting operations fairly easy: Decoy hookers can make multiple appointments to catch a string of johns, and police officers working the other end can nab multiple prostitutes and pimps.

Unfortunately, Craigslist is also convenient for child prostitution.

Sting after sting has turned up underaged girls, some younger than 16, selling themselves on Craigslist. Much as critics of enforcement have dismissed prostitution as a victimless crime, any minor drawn into it is a victim – if only of circumstances or a hellish upbringing.

Child prostitutes are sometimes virtual slaves of the criminals who pimp them online. For that matter, adult women are often smuggled into the country by predators who make it impossible for them to seek help.

So Craigslist deserves applause for its willingness to help police ferret out online prostitution.

This is a never-ending cat-and-mouse game: Predators, pimps, prostitutes and their customers will migrate elsewhere on the Internet to the extent that any one vehicle leaves them exposed to investigators.

It’s true that sex trafficking will never vanish. But that’s no reason to make life easy for the traffickers.

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