Blown To Bits


Monday, September 6th, 2010 by Harry Lewis

I am happy to jump the gun on a bit of a blog-a-thon in which a number of us are taking up topics related to Jonathan Zittrain’s The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It, a masterful analysis of the forces at work to control the Internet.

The Internet disintermediates. It breaks the grip of the middlemen we used to rely on for a variety of services. I don’t need a publisher for my ruminations about the digital world; I can self-publish on this blog. I don’t need a travel agent, or a stock broker; I can make my own travel reservations and buy my own stock picks. Whether I do a better job now at these tasks than I used to have done for me, and who is getting the financial benefit of my doing the work that I used to hire someone to do for me, are nice questions, but the power shift is the important thing.

Which brings us to the interesting story of Craigslist and its Adult Services (née Erotic) section. After a horrible murder here in Boston in which a woman was killed after setting up shop in a nice hotel and receiving paying visitors there, Martha Coakley of MA, Richard Blumenthal of NY, and a number of other Attorneys General started pressuring Craigslist to remove the Adult category. This weekend, Craigslist did exactly that, replacing it with the word CENSORED. (Only in the U.S.)

A number of good stories appeared about this. I thought the Boston Globe had the money quote, from Harvey Silverglate, a noted defense attorney and civil libertarian. “They do not have the legal power [to shut down adult services on the site], so instead they’re abusing their office by intimidating private citizens,’’ he said. ’’I think it’s cowardly.’’ David Fahrenthold of the Washington Post got a good quote from Blumenthal, who may have a hard time remembering his athletic career at Harvard, but knows right from wrong. “They lack either the will or the wherewithal to effectively screen for prostitution ads. Which is why we [said] to them, ‘Shut down the site.'” (Fahrenthold also quotes Zittrain. Full disclosure: David Fahrenthold is my son-in-law.)

What is going on here is CDA Section 230 in action. “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.” The same law that protects the Globe and the Post if one of their online commenters says something libelous also protects Craigslist. As law professor M. Ryan Calo told the New York Times, “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.”

I have a question for the Attorneys General: Why don’t they go after the prostitutes for prostitution, rather than, lacking any legal basis to go after the web site on which they advertise, bullying the site? It’s not like the prostitutes are hard to find. Have one of your gumshoes answer the ads and make a few arrests. Not rocket science. Just not headline stuff. Before you start lobbing Congress to change the law about what people can say online, why not make some arrests for the act you are actually supposed to be worried about and which already is a crime?

But the story of the day is in Boston’s “other” newspaper, the Boston Herald. “Hub Escort Service Cheers Craigslist Ad Shutdown,” reads the headline. “With Craigslist, there’s no middleman,” says the madam, who expects her business to surge if it becomes harder for willing customers and willing service providers to connect to each other directly. Now there is a businesswoman who understands the Internet. This story isn’t over yet — some of those adult ads are reappearing under other rubrics — but I can’t help feeling we are seeing world-historical forces clashing over information control right before our eyes.

5 Responses to “Re-Intermediation”

  1. Jeff Collier Says:

    Hmmm. So it’s OK for me, Joe Citizen, to line up a public opinion campaign to get a business to change their practices, but not for those I’ve elected (or, allowed to be elected, for all of you who don’t vote) to represent me?

    I guess it boils down to how you define “pressured.” And I’ll admit that I don’t know the details there. If it was “take these ads off or we’re going to abuse our power and make life difficult for you and ring up your attorney’s fees, etc.”, then run ’em out on a rail. But what if it was, “You know, we don’t want to spend a lot of tax payer dollars chasing down crime that runs through your site, could you give us a hand and we’ll tell everyone what a good corporate citizen you are” and Craigslist saw the publics relations writing on the wall and consented? Not sure there’s anything to see there.

    You let ’em make me wear a helmet when I ride my motorcycle for what I think is roughly the same argument: since the state ends up paying for the chronic care of (a lot of) motorcyclists with head injuries, we can apply a law to limit our liability. Maybe we should just let the troopers chase down the reckless cyclists and… oh wait. That doesn’t work. Too many bad drivers, not enough troopers.

    I’m not saying we should outlaw something because there are some illegal practices hiding out there. But if government can convince a company to prophylactically act to prevent crime, we should complain?

  2. Harry Lewis Says:

    I cross posted a longer version of this piece over in a symposium on Zittrain’s Future of the Internet. Why don’t we move the comment thread over there.

  3. emlak Says:

    Hmmm. So it’s OK for me, Joe Citizen, to line up a public opinion campaign to get a business to change their practices, but not for those I’ve elected (or, allowed to be elected, for all of you who don’t vote) to represent me?

  4. Sasha Mosseri Says:

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