Does morality affect Craigslist’s bottom line?

I am outraged. And with one word — Craigslist — you probably know why.

I’ve used the site before like most people have — to find roommates and sell furniture. And though I have a couch to sell come graduation, I will NOT be using Craigslist to do it.

In the last year, news about Craigslist’s increasing revenues from sex advertisements has surfaced. It made $36 million from sex advertisements last year. This year, Advanced Interactive Media Group, projected Craigslist’s revenue to increase by 22 percent, the bulk of that increase coming from sex ads. If these numbers are correct they will make $44 million on sex ads in 2010. Sick, right? Well, apparently not sick enough for the executives at Craigslist to do anything more than politically dodge and bemoan the problem.

Let me clarify that I realize not all sex ads on Craigslist are trafficked and many women and men sell themselves. There is no way to quantify this information, though, and as long as advertisements for sex have a home on Craigslist, my concern remains.

The New York Times quotes James Buckmaster, Craigslist’s chief executive, as saying, “Of the thousands of U.S. venues that carry adult service ads, including venues operated by some of the largest and best known companies in the U.S., Craigslist has done the best and most responsible job of combating child exploitation and human trafficking.”

What have they done? They’ve added a little concealer and blush to their deteriorating complexion.

Despite increasingly widespread and repeated criticism from non-governmental organizations like GEMS that fight human trafficking, Craigslist has made only surface changes to their site. The following from an article published April 26, 2010, on Bnet.com:

As AIM’s executive editor Peter Zollman notes, Craigslist’s agreement in November 2008 with Attorney Generals stipulated that they would charge for “erotic services”, the idea being that a credit card trail would deter criminals. The company also agreed to donate all revenue from this sector of their business to charity. But just six months later, in May 2009, Craigslist changed the game. The company eliminated its erotic services category and replaced it with “adult services”. According to Zollman, “By changing the category from “erotic services” to “adult services” Craigslist very neatly sidestepped the agreement it had signed — making the attorneys general look like chumps in the process — and eliminating the requirement that they donate revenue to charity.”

This minor nod to a major problem is more of an insult to the issue than an attempt to clean up their act. And it won’t put even the smallest dent in the problem — which is user-generated content running wild and rampant at the cost of human dignity and any remaining integrity this American-owned business had in the first place (see also: Facebook.)

Craigslist is waving its hands in the air under the protective banner of the Communications Decency Act, which removes any responsibility from the corporation for content users post. How else are companies like Dirtyphonebook.com and the now-defunct (thank GOD) Juicycampus.com able to make it. Why don’t we just throw Facebook, MySpace and Twitter in there as well. They can afford to exist because what you post is, finally, not their problem. Don’t get me wrong — I love my freedom to speak without censorship. But in a digital age where anything and everything is online and uncensored, is there no better way to hold corporations accountable for their actions? Do ethics still apply?

Resoundingly, the answer is yes. I don’t pretend to be an expert or even informed in the area of legal expertise or judicial knowledge, but I am a human being. When the dignity of human life is sold short of its incalculable value for an extra $8 million in revenue, serious moral consequences result.

What good are the high and lofty values of democracy, free speech, and liberty when a young girl or boy, a man or woman, could be marketed on the not-so-black market right before the eyes of the nation that holds these ideals so dear? They are of no value if not practiced. Craigslist has, thus far, demonstrated a laughable respect for humanity and ethical business practices by continuing to charge and allow sex ads on their site — regardless of their nature or source. It is an embarrassment to not just American business or us as Americans, but to us as humans, when a widely known and used company becomes what Change.org calls the “richest pimp in the world.”

If you agree, you can sign a letter telling them so and refuse to use their site until real change occurs. Morality DOES affect the bottom line, and until Craigslist recognizes that truth, I’ll be looking elsewhere to sell my couch.

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