I found this story today on the Associated Press:
HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — State attorneys general nationwide are demanding that Craigslist remove its adult services section because they say the website cannot adequately block potentially illegal ads.
Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal announced Tuesday that he and colleagues in 16 states have sent a letter calling on the classified advertising site to get rid of its adult services category.
The attorneys general say Craigslist is not completely screening out ads that promote prostitution and child trafficking. The site creators pledged in 2008 to improve their policing efforts.
Craigslist has acquired the problem that every other free service has – it’s free, it became popular, and now it is targeted by people who are using it in a way that it was not intended for its general use. In this case, Craigslist is classified service that lets users come together. The problem is that since it is online, it is much easier for people to abuse the service.
In this case, policing ads is not easy to do. I’m sure that Craigslist does a good amount of abuse mitigation (all reputable free services do) but the problem is one of scale. For services like Hotmail and Gmail, they can implement algorithms to prevent bots from signing up with things like CAPTCHAs, IP address analysis and so forth. Craigslist’s problem is that the abusers of their service are actual humans who have switched mediums from traditional print to electronic print. Thus, stopping bots is not the issue being mitigated because it is not bots that are being abusive – it is humans. It is kind of like the dopes who post really dumb messages in Youtube comments.
Speaking of comments, one commenter wrote on that article “I think these Attorney Generals have too much time on their hands…” It looks like they are saying that adult services are fine and Attorney Generals should focus on actual crimes. Human trafficking is a crime and these are crimes that they have to investigate. On the flip side, Craigslist needs to figure out whether or not it is worth the headache to continue to provide these services vs dealing with the wrath of government. Services like Paypal have to deal with credit card fraud and abuse and for them, it is worth it to continue to use them because it’s required in order to have people pay for stuff. Anti-abuse is expensive but worth it (you can bet that if fraud was rampant, the government would be heavily pressuring Paypal).
Craigslist, by contrast, is not the profit-making enterprise that Paypal is. To be sure, Craigslist is profitable but the creator of it was never in it for the money. The cost/benefit ratio of continuing to do this sort of thing vs just saying it isn’t worth the hassle is something every free service has to do. Several URL shortening services have done the same.