[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2009/images/04/22/art_craigslist_arraignment.jpg caption= "Medical student Philip Markoff, 22, appears in court Tuesday in Boston, Massachusetts."]
It’s been a bad couple of months for Craigslist. In March, New York radio reporter George Weber was killed by a man he allegedly met on Craigslist. And now, Boston police are attempting to connect the dots between alleged killer Phillip Markoff and what they believe may be ‘multiple’ victims he found on Craigslist.
The website’s CEO, Jim Buckmaster, seems genuinely concerned. “We feel terribly and feel sad that anyone would lose their life”, he told me in an exclusive interview, saying he was “horrified that use of Craigslist would be connected with a violent crime of this nature.” Watch the interview
He also defended the website from the notion that it was a conduit for criminal activity, saying “there are 50 million Americans using Craigslist each month. When you have that kind of human activity, there’s going to be things going wrong despite everyone’s best efforts to protect people.”
Buckmaster is eager to counter any negative perceptions about Craigslist. It is a valuable commodity – one of the internet’s more successful ventures – and therefore a ripe target for critics.
If alleged killer Phillip Madoff had stalked his victims through the “personal ads” section of the Boston Globe, would there be so much publicity?
Certainly, there are plenty of historic examples of killers using the newspaper classifieds to find their victims – after all, predators will use any tool at their disposal to stalk potential victims.
Craigslist is basically a huge “classified ads” section. It’s as if you took every newspaper in every moderate to large city in America and brought them all together in one place.
The ads do tend to be more explicit – there aren’t many papers that would allow semi-nude photographs to be attached to ‘erotic services’ ads, but the principle is basically the same.
Should Craigslist be any more responsible for protecting their users than newspapers?
There are some important issues to consider. Craigslist gives predators a much broader landscape on which to prowl. With a few clicks, a criminal in Boston can scope out victims in 5 states within easy driving distance. You’d need a lot of newspapers to do that.
Craigslist officers are also well aware that their “erotic services” section is a hotbed for criminal activity. Just last weekend, police in Worcester, MA arrested 50 Craigslist users in a sex sting operation. Cook County, Illinois Sheriff Tom Dart insists the erotic services section is one-stop nationwide shopping for prostitution.
Craigslist has instituted some controls over who posts erotic ads (telephone and credit card verification) and donates all revenue from such ads to charity, but so far has refused pleas from Dart to eliminate the section all together.
There are no controls in regard to who responds to an ad. Police say Markoff likely targeted women he thought would be reluctant to report a robbery.
The security precautions on Craigslist are, for the most part, nothing more than suggestions. In light of the Markoff case, Buckmaster says he will examine “the way the site is set up and the processes that we use to see if there’s any incremental new change that we can make that could make the use of the site safer for users.” He could give us no clear ideas on what Craigslist will do, only insisting that the site will “redouble its efforts” to get across to users to take a few common sense precautions to eliminate risk. One of those is to meet prospective buyers, sellers – or clients in public.
The pledge might seem simplistic. After all, how many prostitutes or ‘massage therapists’ like to meet in public?
Buckmaster points out that Craigslist cooperates fully with police investigations. “We make ourselves completely available to law enforcement”, he told me, “and provide them with anything that they need that could help them either find the individual you’re looking for or prosecute the case once they’ve found the person.”
In fact, Craigslist can be a powerful tool for investigation, recording IP addresses, email and other electronic signatures that can help swiftly lead police to a perpetrator.
Does the information contained on Craiglist make it easier for criminals to operate? The evidence would suggest it does. Would more controls on the site lower the potential for criminal activity? Perhaps. Would that sort of crime go away if Craigslist ceased to exist? Unlikely.
It was with us long before Craigslist was created. And while Craigslist is the most prolific ad site on the internet, there are dozens of other similar venues for predators to prowl.