The Thinker

Our new not-so-naughty Internet

I used to make monthly reviews of Craigslist’s casual encounters section a feature of this site. I gave it up about a year ago because it wasn’t bringing in that much traffic anymore, but also I felt like I had read it all. It used to be that I could reliably find a few nuggets of gold among the voluminous postings of horny guys and mostly women for sale. As you may have read, its casual encounters section, which includes its basic dating area, is shutdown. I wouldn’t have noticed except the event made the news. It became a victim of the recently enacted FOSTA-SESTA (Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act – Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act) law. The law adds tough penalties for sites like Craigslist that even inadvertently facilitate sex trafficking.

Also quickly caught up in the act’s passage was backpage.com, which has been shutdown and now comes with a warning that the site has been seized. The site was pretty much just a place for prostitutes to find clients, so it’s not surprising its top leaders had their homes raided and they were charged with crimes. The Feds seized the domain. Just six days after its passage, backpage.com CEO Carl Ferrer pleaded guilty to both state and local charges.

FOSTA-SESTA’s passage into U.S. law has had sex workers in Canada scrambling. One of these is a client of mine who lives in Ottawa. Prostitution is not illegal in Canada, or at least not in Ontario, or I would not have taken her on as a client. Advertising these services in Canada though has always problematic and more so now that FOSTA-SESTA has been passed because backpage.com brought in most of their business. In my client’s case she needs to move her domains to web hosts outside of FOSTA-SESTA’s umbrella. She’s been proactive and for more than a year has had her hosting overseas. Now she needs to move her domains off GoDaddy to an overseas registrar too. One odd effect of the law is that since many Americans that used to find women on backpage.com may opt to travel to Canada instead. But in general it’s definitely becoming harder to find places to hookup online due to FOSTA-SESTA.

FOSTA-SESTA breaks a unique covenant that has formed the foundation of the web’s success: that website owners could not be held liable for content posted by others. Basically it amends the Communications Decency Act of 1996 which had given website owners a pass. The law’s domain is sex trafficking but now that the door has been opened it’s possible that future congresses will open the door widely to more Internet censorship. Sites that allow hate speech, even tangentially like Facebook, may be held liable. As a practical matter just like a cop cannot possibly arrest every lawbreaker, it’s impossible for most website owners to police all the content it gets as it is time and cost prohibitive. For sites like Facebook, laws like these put at risk its whole business model. Computer algorithms can help flag such content but no algorithm is perfect.

While I often enjoyed my monthly surfing of Craigslist’s casual encounters section, it was quite clear that the postings were rife with prostitutes and at least some of the posts probably involved sex trafficking. Many years ago I found one such ad, encouraging Craigslist users to fly to the Dominican Republic where having sex with a minor was apparently not much of a problem. In Craigslist’s case though they can at least say that they made no money off these postings. They did off its erotic services area until that was closed down after a client murdered a sex worker who advertised using this Craigslist area.

Unless FOSTA-SESTA is repealed it’s unlikely that I will be reviewing Craigslist’s casual encounters section anymore. There are plenty of reviews on my site if you are nostalgic for such stuff under my Craigslist tag. It is unclear to me though where people go if they are truly looking for a hookup. For the adulterous, after it was hacked in 2015 ashleymadison.com proved to be problematic. For hookups with random strangers, tinder.com is probably the place to go these days. But it requires a smartphone app plus you have to create a public profile with pictures and stuff. This is presumably not a problem if you are single, but if it is principally a hookup site you may not want the taint of having your boss or coworkers find you are on the site. For gays and bisexuals, grindr.com offers a similar service. Presumably these are policed reasonably well to keep the posters legitimate.

With FOSTA-SESTA, it sure looks like some twenty years after the World Wide Web took off, its glory days are gone. It had a Wild West feel to it, and sites like Craigslist were where you went if you found that sort of stuff titillating. Craigslist of course is still in business, but it’s back to finding more pedestrian ways to make money such as through job postings and facilitating the buying and selling of excess stuff. Its voyeuristic nature is not entirely gone. There is still its Missed Connections section where two ships passing in the night try to find each other. But its naughtiness is gone. Craigslist has to hope its brand can survive the gaping hole that was lost with the closure of its personals section.

 

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