Craigslist Yields To Critics Demanding Censorship

Craigslist, the Web's largest classified advertising site, said on Wednesday that it would close its erotic services category, which critics have said is a forum that fosters prostitution and other illegal activities.

To replace it, the company has created a category called adult services, in which postings will be reviewed by employees who will look for indications of activity that is illegal or violates the site's guidelines. The erotic services category would be deleted next Wednesday, Craigslist said.

Craigslist has been under increasing pressure from officials in several states, as violent crimes involving people who had made contact through the site made national headlines. But the changes did not appear to go far enough to satisfy everyone in the growing ranks of Craigslist's detractors.

Andrew M. Cuomo, New York's attorney general, said his office had recently notified Craigslist about an impending prostitution case that involved the erotic services category.

"Rather than work with this office to prevent further abuses, in the middle of the night, Craigslist took unilateral action which we suspect will prove to be half-baked," Mr. Cuomo said in a statement.

Jim Buckmaster, chief executive of Craigslist, said the move was not made under any legal pressure.

"In striking this new balance we have sought to incorporate important feedback from all the groups that have expressed strongly held views on this subject, including some of the state A.G.'s, free speech advocates and legal businesses who are accustomed to being entitled to advertise," Mr. Buckmaster said.

He said Craigslist, which is based in San Francisco and has 30 employees, would hire enough new employees to be able to review adult services ads for indications of violations of the site's terms of service, which prohibit sexually explicit images and offers of sex for money, among other things. Postings to the new category would cost $10 and can be renewed for $5.

Mr. Buckmaster said the move was "strictly voluntary" and that Craigslist has always been on solid legal footing under the Communications Decency Act of 1996, which says that Web sites are not legally responsible for material contributed by their users.

Craigslist has long cultivated a permissive environment where a range of products and services, some sexual in nature, are offered and solicited. It has largely relied on its community of users to flag objectionable or illegal content.

Attorney General Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, who has been a leading critic of Web sites that can be used to initiate offline sexual encounters with minors, said state investigators would continue to monitor Craigslist to make sure illicit postings did not simply migrate to other portions of the site that are not reviewed by employees.

"We are going to be extraordinarily watchful," he said. "We are concerned about any possible new area where ads may migrate. We are not going away."

Craigslist announced the changes just as several highly publicized cases have converged to put the 14-year-old site under intense scrutiny. The case of Philip Markoff, a 23-year-old medical student in Boston accused of killing a woman who offered masseuse services through Craigslist, has received national attention.

In March, the sheriff of Cook County in Illinois, which includes Chicago, sued Craigslist in federal court, saying that the site was "facilitating prostitution" and asking the court to force the company to close the erotic services category.

Last week, South Carolina's attorney general, Henry McMaster, threatened the management of Craigslist with criminal prosecution if it did not remove the local erotic services postings within 10 days.

Mr. McMaster said on Wednesday that he believed the Communications Decency Act allowed states to enforce their own laws, and that he would still consider bringing a lawsuit against Craigslist executives if erotic services postings were not removed by the end of Friday.

People with knowledge of investigations in other states said state officials had been looking for creative ways to charge the company, like using state antifraud laws that can be used to prosecute misconduct by consumer-oriented companies.

Last year, Craigslist took several measures to curb sex ads on the site. In November, as part of negotiations with 40 state attorneys general, it said it would start charging for erotic services ads and require advertisers to use a credit card for payment, theoretically allowing the company or authorities to track users down.

But state investigators said the provision proved to be inadequate, as erotic services advertisers simply used fake credit cards or untraceable debit cards.

Mr. Blumenthal of Connecticut said last Tuesday he and representatives from four other states met with a lawyer for Craigslist in New York and demanded that the company eliminate the erotic services section of the Web site by this Wednesday.

A person familiar with the negotiations, who spoke on condition of anonymity because there is tension over the issue among the various attorneys general, said Craigslist made its latest changes without fully consulting any of the state officials.

The new adult services category appeared on the site late Tuesday night, and is already home to ads for things like masseuse and escort services, similar to those that appear in alternative newspapers and the Yellow Pages.

Mr. Buckmaster of Craigslist said the criticism and the press coverage had exaggerated the threat of violence.

"The danger posed with using print classified ads has been 1,000 times as great as the danger associated with Craigslist," Mr. Buckmaster said, pointing to a post on the company's blog that refers to a Wikipedia entry about violent crimes linked to print classified advertising. "To trumpet one or two or three incidents and characterize them as being dangerous, or Craigslist as a place that breeds crime or where killers are on the loose, is sensationalistic when actually the complete opposite is the truth."