Globe Editorial

Crime and Craigslist

April 23, 2009

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IN SOME WAYS, the so-called Craigslist murder is only a new twist on an old story: A young woman makes a living by selling "erotic services"; violent men have always preyed on such vulnerable women. That Julissa Brisman, who was murdered last week in a Boston hotel, first made contact with her killer on Craigslist seems an incidental detail.

Yet while the website was only a medium, the murder raises the question of what role virtual communities play and what responsibilities they should exercise.

Craigslist, a for-profit company, presents itself as a community forum, and its terms of service forbid postings for illegal activities. Prostitution is illegal. But the "erotic services" ads on Craigslist are devoted to sex for pay. Explicit photographs are accompanied by preposterous disclaimers: "Any money exchange," one local listing declared yesterday, "is for Companionship, Sensual Massage or Legal Escorting services ONLY. Anything else that may or may not occur is a matter of choice between two consenting adults of legal age. This is not an offer of prostitution." Right.

Many other public forums, in physical space and in cyberspace, devote considerable energy to chasing illegal activity off the premises they control. They do so not because it's a legal requirement, but because it seems like the right thing to do.

If Craigslist wanted to, it could get rid of its "erotic services" category and hire more eyeballs to keep prostitution ads from migrating to other categories on its own site. Someone else might immediately start a "Fredslist" for prostitution ads, but the new site would lack the imprimatur of a broad community forum.

Either Web companies such as Craigslist need to take more responsibility for how their sites are used, or Americans need to get used to a lot more risk in the spaces where they gather.

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