Sex For Sale On The Internet: Should Websites Be Liable For Adult Postings?

December 16, 2009

2:57 am

SEX by Stuart Caie (http://www.flickr.com/photos/kyz / CC BY 2.0)

Editor’s Notes: This article was contributed to TECH cocktail by John Guidos who practices law out of Chicago, Illinois at the Law Offices of Guidos & Pierotti LLP. Check out their website at: gplawchicago.com or follow John on Twitter: @johnguidos.

As cold weather begins to creep though the streets, prostitutes everywhere can breathe a sigh of relief. Unbeknownst to most who partake in the sex-trade industry, they have won a small victory in the war on cyber-prostitution. In late October, Federal Judge John F. Grady dismissed a lawsuit seeking to have Craigslist remove its “adult services” advertisements. This decision no doubt has huge implications for internet-based “adult service” websites. TechCrunch has some of the case documents posted here.

The lawsuit was filed earlier this year by Chicago Sheriff Thomas Dart. Dart has stated “Craigslist is the single largest source of prostitution in the nation.” Many have also likened Craiglist to an “internet brothel.” These types of sites offer a cheap means of advertising, which also provides the anonymity that helps facilitate prostitution.

Long before Sheriff Dart’s lawsuit, Craigslist was under pressure to remove its adult ads. Due to public uproar, Craigslist has made a few policy changes to cut down on illegal activity. The company decided it best to remove the “erotic services” category and replace it with an “adult services” section In addition, a $10 fee is now charged for the ads and each is reviewed by a Craigslist employee (who removes graphic sexual images). Craigslist Founder Craig Newmark has stated the site does not promote prostitution. Newmark has said “We don’t want it there. It’s wrong, and that’s why we have the help of the general community and the law enforcement community getting rid of things like that.”

Judge Grady’s ruling said Craigslist is not “culpable for aiding and abetting” those that use the site for illegal activity. The ruling further states that law enforcement “may continue to use Craigslist’s Web site to identify and pursue individuals who post allegedly unlawful content,” but Craigslist cannot be sued for their conduct. One could translate the ruling to state that police officers can punish those who work the street corners at night or cruise the alleys looking to buy sex. However, law enforcement officials cannot hold the city (where the prostitution takes place) liable for these people who have decided to perpetrate a crime.

The Federal Court’s ruling in this case will most likely open the floodgates for other “adult service” websites. In the same way that a municipality cannot be punished for having streets where a prostitute sells sex, the city can hope to cut down on prostitution by strengthening the police force that patrols those high crime areas. The best law enforcement can hope for is a policy to better regulate these sites.

Do you think the Federal Court’s ruling is just or should websites be liable for adult postings?

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John Guidos is a Chicago Attorney with a keen interest in startups and entrepreneurship. Follow him online at @JohnGuidos.

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