Chicago Prostitution Sting Leads to Craigslist Lawsuit

Published May 1, 2009

Cook County, Illinois Sheriff Thomas Dart is suing Craigslist for becoming what he says is the nation’s “single largest source of prostitution.”

After monitoring the San Francisco-based online classified-ad listing site’s erotic services section in spring 2008, Dart said the county made 156 prostitution-related arrests.

Dart wants the court to issue an injunction against the site. The lawsuit also seeks monetary damages in the amount of $105,000, the amount it cost the county for the prostitution sting.

Possible Legal Protection

Daniel Castro, a senior analyst with the Washington DC-based Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, said Dart has a tough case to prove.

“The information technology revolution has threatened many industries with disintermediation—using technology to cut out the middleman—so it is not surprising to see this happened across all businesses, legal or otherwise,” Castro said. “Given that Craigslist is used for many legal purposes, it is hard to imagine how it is any more culpable than the ISPs that provide access to the Web site.”

Craigslist also is likely to be protected by section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, Castro said. The law, passed by Congress in 1997, states Web sites are protected from state tort lawsuits based on material posted by users.

Sheriff’s Move Could Backfire

Because of the law’s protections, some technology professionals think Dart has other intentions in filing the lawsuit, and they believe it may end up backfiring.

“Let’s say the sheriff is able to make Craigslist change their rules by continuously hassling them, which seems unlikely in this case,” said Bruce Abramson, an intellectual property expert and president of the San Francisco-based consultancy firm Informationism, Inc. “Given the context, it would be one of the stupidest things I’ve ever heard of.

“If the sheriff thinks the site is being used to solicit crimes, he should use it to find criminals, which is a better use of resources than shutting it down and forcing people to use sites no one has ever heard of,” Abramson said. “They are better off monitoring Craigslist for criminals and apprehending them than forcing them underground.”

Craigslist Cooperating

Last November Craigslist entered an agreement with some 40 attorneys general, including the one in Illinois, to discourage illegal use of the site by requiring those who post erotic services ads to pay a small fee by credit card and post a working phone number.

In a written statement released in March, Craigslist CEO Jim Buckmaster said “misuse of Craigslist to facilitate criminal activity is unacceptable, and we continue to work diligently to prevent it. Misuse of the site is exceptionally rare compared to how much the site is used for legal purposes.”

Dart says the new rules have done nothing to quell prostitution solicitations on the site.

Aricka Flowers ([email protected]) writes from Chicago.