Mark Garfinkel/AP
Boston University medical student Philip Markoff, center, sits with his lawyer John
Salsberg during his arraignment in Boston Municipal Court.

Alleged Craigslist Killer Spurs End of Site’s Erotic Services Section

May 14, 2009 05:30 PM
by Liz Colville
The charging of Philip Markoff, 23, with the murder of a masseuse he met on Craigslist has accelerated law enforcement officials’ efforts to curb adult listings on the classifieds site.

Craigslist Pressured for Months

San Francisco-based Craigslist announced in its May 13 blog post that “[a]s of today for all US craigslist sites, postings to the ‘erotic services’ category will no longer be accepted, and in 7 days the category will be removed.” It is being replaced by a new section called “adult services” that will feature “postings by legal adult service providers. Each posting to this new category will be manually reviewed before appearing on the site.”

In November 2008, Craigslist changed its policy on erotic services ads when it began requiring a “working phone number and credit card” from ad posters, in accordance with negotiations with 40 state attorneys general, CNET reported. As part of that agreement, Craigslist also began suing “14 of the companies accused of helping illegal advertisers to evade the site's defenses.”

But law enforcement officials continued to pressure Craigslist to do more. South Carolina Atty. Gen. Henry McMaster warned the site earlier in May that it would be “subject to criminal investigation and prosecution” unless the erotic section was removed by May 15, the Los Angeles Times reported. The Times added that Craigslist believed it was protected by federal law from such prosecution.
“[We] see no legal basis whatsoever for filing a lawsuit against craigslist or its principals and hope that the Attorney General will realize this upon further reflection,” the company wrote in its May 5 blog post.

Nonetheless, Craigslist CEO Jim Buckmaster said in an e-mail statement sent to the Times, “Criminal misuse of Craigslist is absolutely unacceptable, and we are committed to working together with law enforcement to eliminate it.” Three days later, the policy change was made.

In the May 13 blog post, the company defends online classifieds as safer than print classifieds due to “Community moderation,” as well as “blocking, screening, and telephone verification” and other features, and highlights the reduction in illegal posts since the November agreement with attorneys general.

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Recent Developments: “Craigslist Killer” cases put more pressure on site

Boston medical student Philip Markoff, the so-called “Craigslist Killer,” was recently charged with the April murder of 26-year-old Julissa Brisman, a masseuse that he met on Craigslist. He has been linked to several other attacks and was recently charged with robbing Trisha Leffler, a 29-year-old prostitute from Las Vegas, The Boston Globe reported. Following those charges, Markoff was linked to the Rhode Island robbery of another woman who was held at gunpoint, according to The Globe.

Earlier this year, Michael John Anderson of Minnesota was sentenced to life in prison for the murder of Katherine Ann Olson. In 2007, Anderson lured the 24-year-old woman to his home with a fake Craigslist ad for a babysitter and shot her to death, the Associated Press reported.

Opinion & Analysis: Is Craigslist at fault?

After Markoff’s charging in the Rhode Island robbery of a 26-year-old woman (who has not been named), Rhode Island Atty. Gen. Patrick Lynch “took aim at Craigslist,” saying he is working with others to “get Internet companies including Craigslist to be better corporate citizens,” The Boston Globe reported. Lynch said the Internet has its pluses, “but it allows a very dangerous vehicle into your home as well.”

In the Boston Herald, Wendy Murphy argued that Markoff “could just as easily have found women through MySpace … or in the back pages of the Phoenix, or by trolling Washington Street in Boston late at night.” She goes on to say, “Using Craigslist as a whipping boy is a nice distraction,” but the attention should really be focused on “the social conditions that cause women to choose a virtual form of sex slavery as a career.”

Buckmaster tackled the negative attention to the site with a cautious defense: “the site has facilitated billions of human interactions over its history. Compared to human society as a whole the risks of Craigslist are low, but they're not zero,” he told AP. He emphasized that people meeting through the site should “take the same kinds of precautions” they would take when meeting a stranger “offline.”

As more phony Craigslist ads came to the fore in 2008, TechCrunch’s Michael Arrington called the site “just a mirror, and we have to take the good with the bad.”

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