The Scapegoating of Craigslist

accused Craigslist killer, Philip Markoff's now ex-fiancee Megan McAllister as she made jailhouse visit ot him yesterday
CBS
This commentary was written by Christopher Lochhead, a former technology executive who now works as a strategy advisor.

Fueled by inflammatory media coverage of a man branded the "Craigslist Killer," the government has decided to single out Craigslist ever since a woman who offered massages on the site was murdered.

The irony here is that the unfair treatment of Craigslist by many in the press could harm Internet freedoms at the very time when many old media companies are turning to the Internet for salvation. More about that in a moment.

Complaints by state and local law enforcement agencies about Craigslist's erotic services section escalated after the tragic murder of Julissa Brisman in April. Police believed she was lured to a Boston hotel by a man suspected of using Craigslist to rob masseuses and escorts. South Carolina Attorney General Henry McMaster even threatened Craigslist CEO Jim Buckmaster with the possibility of criminal prosecution if he didn't remove the erotic services area from the web site within 10 days.

Last November Craigslist was forced to change its approach to ads for erotic services by 40 states attorneys general. And now the three state attorneys general are pushing for an an out-right ban on the ads.

It's perhaps coincidence but all this occurs at a time when Craigslist has become the poster child for all that ails the newspaper business model. While old media companies have been threatened by online upstarts for the last decade, the emergence of Craigslist, in particular, hit newspapers hard as it garnered an increasing share of the classified ad market, traditionally a big source of income for newspapers. Nowadays, Craigslist, which claims over 50 million users, posts more than 40 million classifieds each month.

The dramatic damage to newspapers has forced the shutdown of longtime metro dailies like the Rocky Mountain News in Denver and the 146-year-old Seattle Post-Intelligencer. The rest of the industry isn't faring much better. (RealClearPolitics.com has published a list called "Top Ten Newspapers In Trouble.") Just this month, Senator John Kerry declared newspapers to be an "an endangered species." Keep all this in mind as we consider the press's treatment of Craigslist. Why didn't the media choose to brand this guy the "Internet Killer", "Boston Killer", "Hotel Killer" or something else? Whether or not it was intentional, the decision to repeat the phrase, "Craigslist Killer," has caused material brand damage to Craigslist and fanned the flames for the censorship hawks.

I think Craigslist is also getting way more blame than it deserves. Craigslist is a marketplace. Its job is to provide a platform for people to exchange goods, services and ideas. Just like a shopping mall, market, or square in the physical world. Good and bad things can happen in a marketplace. Because people are good and bad. When someone gets killed, raped, or mugged in Times Square, we don't blame Times Square.

But while Craigslist is being singled out, there are hundreds of websites that offer classifieds, dating services, and social networking. They all create an opportunity for evil people to prey on victims. Most local yellow pages have a section for "entertainers" or some other forms of adult service. This has been going on for years. What do we think those ads are for? And there are hundreds of places in the off-line world (parks, shopping malls, street corners, etc.) where people can and do commit horrible crimes.

For Craigslist, this crisis is akin to the Tylenol or Odwalla tragedies, in which users of those products died. Johnson and Johnson and Odwalla, both took quick action with their business practices and showed tremendous public relations acumen as their crises played out. As a result, both still have strong brands today. While the fate of Craigslist can't be known yet, it is clearly in trouble.

What should it do now?

Craigslist has since announced that it will manually review every ad placed for "adult services," a section that was previously labeled "erotic services." But that does not go far enough. Good controls are good business. Many Internet companies have been too lax, relying on users to govern themselves. Craigslist (and other new media business) need to do the online equivalent of installing new street lights, having more patrols, and hooking up security cameras. We need better warnings, additional screening, a rating system for users in the community (the way eBay does), and stronger tracking capabilities of users online. If people know they will be turned over to the authorities when they commit crimes using the Internet, they may think twice.

Next Craigslist (with the support of other new media businesses) should set up a foundation for victims of violent crimes that are committed by people using the Internet.

Finally, Craigslist must to do a better PR job. The future of Internet freedom will be voted on in the court of public opinion, before the government rules on it. Craigslist (and most new media companies) have been to quiet and defensive on this issue. Both Craig Newmark, Craigslist's founder and Buckmaster need to come out of hiding. They need to passionately evangelize what company is doing to help protect users, how it works with law enforcement to catch bad guys, and be an advocate for freedom on the Internet.

And while we're at it, how about a bit more balance from the old media as well as from the government? It's time to get a handle on things. Nobody has an interest in letting this escalate into a media-driven, government overreaction, which, if left unchecked, could destroy many of the Internet freedoms we now accept as a given.

By Christopher Lochhead