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S. Carolina to Craigslist: Ditch the Smut And Sluts

The State of South Carolina--or rather Attorney General Henry McMaster to be more precise--is now threatening craigslist with criminal charges if it doesn't remove its Erotic Services section from the website. The State's AG specifically addressed craigslist Chief Executive Jim Buckmaster, and said in an open letter (PDF) that craigslist hasn't done enough to clean up the postings that advertise prostitution or "erotic services" since the original "clean-up" agreement made back in November (which involves more than 40 states). Now the organization, headed by Buckmaster, faces possible criminal investigation and prosecution.

Although the Attorney General recognizes that craigslist offers a valuable service to the public in terms of the classified and communications services, he said that the craigslist management has knowingly allowed the site to be used for illegal and unlawful activity. "Recent national events, along with ongoing law enforcement efforts in South Carolina, indicate that craigslist has not installed sufficient safeguards since November to prohibit the Internet site from being used as a vehicle to advertise or solicit prostitution," McMaster said. "Also of concern is the unrestricted manner in which graphic pornographic pictures posted and displayed by users on the craigslist site and their accessibility to minors."

The Attorney General thus informed Buckmaster that the craigslist management must remove the "solicitation of prostitution and the dissemination and posting of graphic pornographic material" from the South Carolina portion of the website on or before 5:00pm EST, Friday May 15, 2009. As of this writing, the Erotic Services section still remains on the website, found in Myrtle Beach, Hilton Head (yes, that's a real city), Greenville, and three other listed cities. In Florence, SC, seekers can actually load up advertisements promising "a journey to super sensual delights," or another advert offering an hour's service at a cost of $260.

Unfortunately for craigslist, McMaster isn't the only Attorney General to voice concerns: the AGs of Connecticut, Illinois, Missouri, and Rhode Island have also spoken out against the website. However, Tuesday Buckmaster retaliated in his blog, saying that the Attorney Generals have no case against him and the company. In fact, he claims that federal law actually protects the website under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act passed back in 1996. The law protects websites like craigslist--including the domain name registrars, ISPs, and website operators--from state criminal liability for content posted by third parties.

Sound familiar? In a totally unrelated case, the Pirate Bay ordeal proved that websites aren't held liable for the third-party content, but rather are guilty of serving as accessories to copyright infringement. In the case of craigslist, it may be that the website will be held liable for facilitating prostitution rather than charged for the actual services, perhaps even viewed as a virtual "pimp." However, it's generally believed by many skeptics that the Attorney Generals will have no case despite the many threats made against the website.

"The existence of sites that rely on third party content depends on strong uniform legal protections against liability based on material posted by users," he wrote. "If site operators were forced to screen all third party contributions under risk of civil or criminal penalty, the Internet would lose many of the vibrant services that have made it so dynamic."

Despite craigslist's recent attempts to cut down on the ongoing illegal activity problem, the Attorney Generals may have a point about the efforts "not being enough." While the erotic services are still in place, end-users are only road blocked by a simple "warning and disclaimer" click-through page. Without banning the website completely with parental controls, anyone of any age group--whether they're clever children, adventurous adults, or pedophiles looking to buy prostitutes for teen boys--can load up an advertisement, read its offering, and view explicit images.

Then again, there are a multitude of sites available on the Internet that offer far worse material and services than the advertisements listed on craigslist, and they're just as wide open as... well, a field of grass in the countryside.