3 min

US Craigslist flap makes waves in Canada

Activist calls for restrictions on sex ads

CHANGES. Craigslist hasn't removed the erotic services section for Canadian cities, but Canadian police and an anti-human-trafficking crusader have reportedly been in discussions with the website to crack down on sex ads north of the border.

Under pressure from US authorities the popular classifieds website Craigslist cracked down on prostitution ads in May.

Facing mounting US lawsuits, Craigslist agreed to remove its erotic services category from sites catering to American cities. Instead, the site put up an adult services section in which each posting is reviewed by Craigslist employees.

Craigslist also adopted rules for advertisers in those sections. They must now pay $10 and provide phone numbers and credit card information for each new posting. Craigslist CEO Jim Buckmaster wrote on the company blog that net proceeds from the fee will go to charity.

The move comes in the wake of several high-profile and sensationalized legal cases related to the site’s erotic classifieds. In April 22-year-old Boston medical student Phillip Markoff was charged in connection with the death a woman who allegedly advertised massage services on Craigslist. The media dubbed it the Craigslist killer case.

In May authorities indicted seven people in New York City for operating a prostitution business that advertised through Craigslist. In a lawsuit against the San Francisco-based company an Illinois sheriff called Craigslist the “largest source of prostitution” in the US.

In the US buying or selling sex is almost universally illegal but the internet often transcends jurisdictional borders. The Canadian Press (CP) reported on May 17 that Canadian police have asked Craigslist to make changes to erotic service classifieds north of the border. 

According to the report Ben Perrin, a law professor at the University of British Columbia and anti-human-trafficking crusader; the RCMP and Peel Regional Police met with Craigslist representatives to ask for changes to the site’s rules for posting on more than 50 Canadian classified pages.

Perrin, who has called for wider use of Canada’s anti-human-trafficking laws, told CP that measures like credit card and telephone monitoring were needed to prevent Craigslist from being used to exploit people, particularly young people.

“We already know that Craigslist has been used as a portal for the sale of victims of human trafficking in Canada,” Perrin told CP. “We’ve had at least six cases in the Greater Toronto Area where the Peel Regional Police have identified Craigslist as being primarily involved for the sale of these victims of sex trafficking.”

Xtra attempted to contact Perrin but he did not respond before press time.

But a Peel Regional Police media officer denies that anyone there spoke with Craigslist on this issue.

“I know it says we were in discussions with Craigslist and the RCMP but it wasn’t us,” says sgt Zahir Shah.

Xtra attempted to contact the RCMP but our calls were not returned before filing.

Craigslist spokesperson Susan MacTavish Best wrote in an email to CP that the company “had a thoughtful and productive conversation with Perrin and law enforcement. We look forward to continuing the discussion in Canada over the upcoming months.”

When reached by Xtra, Best would say only, “As of yet no changes have been made to the Canadian sites.”

As this story was filed the erotic sections for Toronto Craigslist remained unchanged. A FAQ section reads that Craigslist continues to screen postings with software and relies on users to report any problematic ads.

“Illegal activity is absolutely not welcome, and will not be tolerated,” reads the FAQ. “However, when it comes to legal conduct between consenting adults we feel it is important to err on the side of respecting free speech and privacy rights and to leave moral judgments to the greater wisdom of the Craigslist community, who are empowered through our flagging system.”

In Canada exchanging money for sex is not illegal. But, bizarrely, many of the activities associated with sex work — communicating for the purposes of prostitution in a public place or operating a common bawdy house — are criminal offenses.

The prospect of additional barriers to using Craigslist angers Anastasia Kyzuk, a spokesperson for the Sex Workers Alliance of Toronto.

Kyzuk claims the US rules are more about marginalizing sex workers than protecting them and shouldn’t be applied in Canada.

“How does it protect us when we’re providing our credit card information but the johns don’t have to provide any information at all?” she asks.

Sex workers in Toronto who use Craigslist to do business are constantly on the lookout for illegal postings, says Kyzuk. It’s an effort to distinguish between consensual sex in the industry and the criminal activities of human trafficking, she adds.

“People think we don’t think about trafficking or don’t know it happens, but we do,” she says. “It’s not prostitution when you’re 14 or 15 years old or when someone says, ‘I didn’t want to be here and I didn’t want to do this.’ That’s sexual slavery.”

Kyzuk suggests Craigslist should adopt the same strategy as some of Toronto’s alternative weeklies and provide support service contacts for minors and victims of sex trafficking in their classifieds section.