Craigslist appears to have surrendered in a legal fight over erotic ads posted on its website, shutting down its adult services section Saturday and replacing it with a black bar that simply says "censored."
The move comes just over a week after a group of state attorneys general said there weren't enough protections against blocking potentially illegal ads promoting prostitution. It's not clear if the closure is permanent, and it appears to only affect ads in the United States.
The listings came under new scrutiny after the jailhouse suicide last month of a former medical student who was awaiting trial in the killing of a masseuse he met through Craigslist, a popular site that lets users post classified ads, often for free.
Craigslist's adult services section carried ads for services such as personal massages or a night's companionship, which critics say veered into prostitution.
Craigslist CEO Jim Buckmaster said in a May blog posting that the company's ads were no worse than those published by the alternative newspaper chain Village Voice Media. He cited one explicit ad which included the phrase: "anything goes $90."
Craigslist has been caught for years in a murky legal fight that centers on how much responsibility the company bears for its ads, said Jonathan Zittrain, professor of law and computer science at Harvard University.
Prosecutors can argue Craigslist is an "intermediary" to the crime of prostitution, Zittrain said, but such cases are hard to prove. He said prosecutors must essentially prove that Craigslist knew an ad was a solicitation for prostitution; ads on Craigslist are typically worded more vaguely.
It's unclear if Craigslist felt the attorneys general had a good argument, or if it simply got tired of spending time on the issue. But saying adult services were "censored" rather than just removing could be seen as a message to prosecutors, Zittrain said.
"They don't like being pushed around," Zittrain said.
Like many other online forums, Craigslist typically does not review ads before they are posted by users.
But in 2008, under pressure from 40 state attorneys general, Craigslist began requiring posters to provide a working phone number and pay a fee for placing an ad in what is now the adult services section. Several months later, Craigslist adopted a manual screening process in which postings are reviewed before publishing.