Craigslist, the popular Web site for classified ads, has blocked access to its “adult services” section and replaced the link with a black label showing the word “censored.”
Law-enforcement officials and groups that oppose human trafficking have been highly critical of Craigslist, saying that the adult ads helped facilitate prostitution and the selling of women against their will.
Craigslist, which is based in San Francisco, did not respond to requests for comment, and it was unclear whether the block represented a permanent shift in policy or a temporary protest against the outside pressure on the company, which has lasted several years.
Last month the attorneys general from 17 states sent a letter to Craigslist’s chief executive, Jim Buckmaster, and its founder, Craig Newmark, asking the company to immediately remove the adult services section.
The controversy is the one of the most prominent in the debate over free speech on the Web, where anyone can easily and anonymously post anything: just how much responsibility does a Web site have for what is posted by its users, or for potential criminal activity that results from the posts?
The company, while promising to provide more rigorous oversight of the ads, has defended its right to run them and says it is protected under federal law — the Communications Decency Act — a position that judges and legal experts have generally backed.
“They can absolutely keep it up. The law is pretty crystal clear on this,” said M. Ryan Calo, a senior research fellow at the Stanford Law School’s Center for Internet & Society. “What’s happened here is the states’ attorneys general, having failed to win in court and in litigation, have decided to revisit this in the court of public opinion, and in the court of public opinion, they have been much more successful.”
Richard Blumenthal, the Connecticut attorney general who helped lead the effort against Craigslist, said by phone on Saturday that “these prostitution ads did not promote a victimless crime. There is human trafficking in children, assaults on women.”
He said he was pleased that Craigslist appeared to be “doing the right thing voluntarily” but added that his office would continue to monitor the site and was trying to determine if Craigslist was closing the section permanently.
The ads in the adult section, which cost $10 to post and $5 to repost, are a big revenue source, analysts say. Craigslist is private and does not report financial figures. But adult ads are expected to bring the company $36 million in revenue this year, according to the Advanced Interactive Media Group, an organization that analyzes Craigslist.
Some Internet law analysts said on Saturday that Craigslist could be sending more than one signal — that it was both capitulating to law enforcement and thumbing its nose at it.
“There are multiple ways in which to censor speech — one is directly through the courts, and the other is through a form of protest that says, even if you can do this, stop doing it,” said Thomas R. Burke, a lawyer at Davis Wright Tremaine who specializes in Internet law and is not involved with Craigslist. “Maybe their point in saying they were censored is that people need to understand the law better.”
But Malika Saada Saar, executive director of the Rebecca Project for Human Rights, a nonprofit group that has urged Craigslist to shut the adult services section and screen the entire site for such ads, said the company should be held responsible for what appears on its site. She said Craigslist “has the legal responsibility as well as the moral responsibility” to close the section. Craigslist has taken steps to appease critics before. In May 2009, it removed its “erotic services” category and replaced it with “adult services,” for “postings by legal adult service providers,” and had all adult services ads manually screened by a lawyer before posting.
But criticism has continued, fueled by prominent cases like that of Philip Markoff, a Boston medical student who was charged with murdering a woman he had met on Craigslist. He pleaded not guilty, and he died in jail last month in an apparent suicide.
The section in question appears not to have been blocked abroad. In France visitors to the site have access to the Érotique link and can see material intended for adults.