Embrace for Impact: My Conversation with Craig Newmark on the "Craigslist Killer"

05/28/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Craig Newmark is the John Hancock of the Internet. He is a founding father of the World Wide Web, and he will forever leave his oversized signature on the core principles on which the Internet was built.

His is the best example of a site that has maintained the ideals of the Internet's constitution, and he is himself a beacon of the idea of the "symbiotic online community" set forth in the original intentions of our declaration of independence from traditional media.

He has survived the dot-com boom, the dot-com bust, Web 1.0, Web 2.0, and Web 3.0, and has emerged not only unchanged but unscathed.

The Craigslist Killer has turned Craig into something of a Paul Revere on his horse yelling "The British are coming!" Craig, however, is now yelling, "The prostitutes are advertising!"

Sitting behind his multiple monitors, large-soda cup-with-straw at hand, earpiece glued to his ear, Craig is poised in attack position. His sincere response to most questions about the Craigslist Killer end with the aggressive assertion that "if you commit crimes on my site, you will get caught," and that he is "working with the cops to catch the bad guys." He is a modern-day Civilian Officer and he is looking to hand out Civilian Arrests. His tenacity makes him sound like a renegade bounty hunter with a purpose. In his view, his site has been unjustly associated with scandal -- and he is looking for retribution.

Here is the video of my interview with Craig, and the transcript is below:


Based on Alexa rankings, Craigslist is one of the 30 most trafficked sites online. Everything Craig does with his site has worldly importance. He has singlehandedly eradicated the "Classified Section," and decisions he makes about censorship (or manual advertisement removal) have a global impact.

It is important to note that I don't believe that Craigslist (and, by extension, Craig himself) is responsible for the Craigslist Killer's acts. The site is not creating societal deviants. If not through Craigslist, crimes would happen through other channels. Furthermore, if not through Craigslist, prostitution or erotic services would be advertised elsewhere. Like someone selling a used couch, I think erotic service providers have found it most efficient to market their services on Craigslist. But if Craig decides to remove the "erotic" advertisements, prostitution dealers will find other marketing vehicles. That being said, I think it is important to assess the site's role in sex trafficking, as Craig must make conscious decisions about erotic services in order to address the attention the site is receiving right now. It's interesting to learn what factors are contributing to Craig's decisions.

Craig claims that he does not censor user-generated content or advertisements on Craigslist. The community alerts the company about illegal or bogus posts; the company then decides whether to remove the post or not. Additionally, if enough users flag a post, it is removed automatically. Such posts could include someone trying to sell drugs or a New York real estate broker advertising an apartment that doesn't exist. Craig also stated that he manually removes posts advertising illegal activity. He claims that at this point Craigslist has real guidelines, but that they are all based on community feedback.

From what Craig says, it sounds as though the first line drawn in the sand is legality. Simply put, if you are advertising for something illegal, it will be removed (and info will be sent to "the cops").

Last time I checked, prostitution was illegal. Yet Craig has maintained an Erotic Services tab on the site for many years. I'm not sure what about this post [NSFW] is legal, but Craig claims that people have been advertising for erotic services through print for decades.

In response to the Craigslist Killer, Craig has maintained the Erotic Services section, but has begun charging for erotic advertisements. Craig claims that this move has cut down on the number of posts by 80 to 90 percent. He claims that this drop in posting can be attributed to the obvious cost barrier -- not to mention the forensics trail a credit card can leave. Additionally, he asserts that they now donate all new erotic ad revenues to charity and still give the community the opportunity to flag and remove posts.

I believe that Craig is hurt by the "Craigslist Killer" scandal. He has spent the last 14 years of his life working tirelessly to create a true community built for the people and monitored by the people. He has fought for his community that is built on free speech. He has rejected the lure of billions of dollars by selling out or integrating additional revenue-generating mechanisms into the site. I don't think I know a single other person that would have made that decision. He rightfully believes he has the most fair and pure site on the web. After 14 years and billions of advertisements on the site, a scandal has been associated with people that utilize his site, and his name is now associated with murder. I think Craig feels slighted by the media and by the public.

His response to this current scandal is the response he's had to everything since the inception of the site: "I will do what the law and the community tell me to do." I think his personal reaction to this scandal would have been to pull the Erotic Services tab and attempt to remove all sex trafficking ads, but he hasn't because "the cops" have asked him to keep it on the site for the forensic evidence it produces.

He is forever a servant to the community.

Craig is not ready to deem "erotic services" illegal at this point. He is, however, impassioned by the opportunity to work with "the cops" to help "catch the bad guys." You can hear the fervor in his voice when he proclaims he is now part of the solution rather than part of the problem. If the community tells Craig he's part of the problem, he will believe he's part of the problem. Aligning himself so closely with the law is his way of repenting.

Interview Transcript:

JA: What is the state bird of California, and if you could change it, what would you change it to?

CN: I don't know what it is, so I'm going to make up something and say it's the hummingbird, and that works for me.

JA: You love hummingbirds?

CN: Actually, I have several in my immediate backyard. I see them fighting for territory. I actually have some video of them, and I will be blogging it tomorrow morning.

JA: Have you ever called Jim Buckmaster "The Buckmeister"?

CN: I've been tempted, but it was too obvious.

JA: Many people believe you made a significant impact on the Obama campaign. What do you think about Joe Biden's decision to get hair plugs?

CN: Um, well, first, my role in the Obama campaign was greatly exaggerated. Regarding the Vice President, maybe I should ask him for some advice on how to get mine.

JA: Larry David would not approve, and I'm wondering if you do?

CN: I haven't spoken with Larry, well, ever, so I don't know.

JA: BlackBerry or iPhone?

CN: For me, iPhone, but I'm seriously looking at the Google Phone.

JA: Who are three people that you recommend following on Twitter?

CN: Well, I could probably figure out a long list... There is @ jayrosen_nyu (Jay Rosen), @buzzmachine/@jeffjarvis (Jeff Jarvis), @EllnMllr (Ellen Miller). That's a good start; those are people's opinions I rely on for the evolution of journalism.

JA: What does Craigslist currently censor (firearms, drugs, violence, et cetera), and how does that happen?

CN: We don't "censor" anything. That's a political term. There are a lot of community guidelines. For example, people in the community tell us they don't want to see firearm ads, they don't want to see people, let's say, breaking the law, harassing each other, bickering, that kind of thing. So we do have some real guidelines, but they're based on community feedback. Pretty much everything is based on community feedback.

JA: So, by principle, in order for you to actively remove a post, or remove content, you need to have received a request from the community to do so?

CN: Well, it's simpler than that. For the most part, removal of ads is driven by community flagging. Specifically, you know, if you see an ad that's wrong for some reason, you can flag it for removal. If enough other people agree with you and flag the ad, it's removed automatically. But now and then someone will draw something specific to our attention. In New York, a big problem is still apartment brokers posting in the owner's section, posting deceptively, and pretty much every day I deal with at least one of them.

JA: Is that just in essence a rule, that when you see it, you manually remove it?

CN: Pretty much so, and for whatever reason I take a particular interest in some of the less savory figures in the real estate community. Although since we've been doing this actively, the amount of abuse has dropped dramatically.

JA: Dealing with drugs, violence, firearms--is there any rule of thumb that you go by in terms of censoring that content?

CN: Well, we actively go after crooks by working with the police. Anything that is criminal is just not okay on our site, and we work pretty actively with victims and the cops to deal with it, because we know how to help the cops with the simple forensics that they need on our site and we believe in acting fast while still respecting the Bill-of-Rights kind of stuff. If a crook tries something on our site, they're gonna get caught.

JA: Let's talk about preventing the act. If something is recognized as a drug dealing post, is it something that you remove immediately when you see it and then send the information to a local authority?

CN: Well, for sure, some of the process we don't disclose, but if we see it we will remove the ad immediately, but retain the evidence indefinitely.

JA: I assume you have debated censoring obvious sex trafficking through the moniker "erotic massages." Why did you decide to allow the erotic advertisements and even provide a city homepage category for it?

CN: We don't censor any form, but if anything criminal is attempted on our site, we deal with it right away, and again, if you are a crook trying to pull something, and if the cops are interested, you're gonna get caught. We're driven by the law enforcement community and our general community, and specifically when it comes to erotic services, we've spoken with a lot of cops and a lot of DAs, we've spoken with forty states' Attorneys General, and [we've talked with] the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. We're still in conversations with them all, but for now, what they've told us to do, what they want us to do, is to keep the Erotic Services section, for reasons I can't disclose. They've asked us, as a way of discouraging all the bad guys, to charge a token fee and give all the profits away to charity, and we're setting that up right now.

JA: So you are going to be charging for people to place ads for erotic services?

CN: In that category--and specifically we are giving away all the profits to charity. Right now the big deal is that since we started charging, the abuse has gone down eighty to ninety percent.

JA: "Abuse" you classify as what?

CN: Mostly ads for illegal services.

JA: So the amount of ads has dropped by eighty or ninety percent?

CN: Yeah, the deal is that when we're charging that creates an audit trail, a credit card trail, which means that if in the remaining ads someone tries to do something wrong, we have a way of directly finding them that can be shared with law enforcement.

JA: Are erotic massages wrong? Are they now being classified as illegal?

CN: Well, if an ad for massage or anything else is illegal and it's wrong, we're gonna go after 'em. The idea is that sometimes people use those terms in different ways, which is part of the challenge. The use of language--well, something that sounds illegal may not be, and something that sounds illegal may be illegal. That's a part of why this is so difficult.

JA: It seems like you are very in touch with the local municipality about this specific issue. As of today, are you calling erotic services offered through the site illegal? Are you calling them wrong?

CN: That's too broad a way to characterize them, because I might accuse the innocent of something. The deal is that we work with the cops, DAs, Attorneys General, and our community, and [the community does] the flagging thing, and when there's something that seems really wrong going on, usually that means we'll wind up getting an e-mail and can address it quickly and directly.

JA: So for that section specifically there are people that are acting in a legal capacity and people acting in an illegal capacity?

CN: Well, there are people acting in a legal capacity. If it's illegal, they won't see it, because it's going to get removed.

JA: You continually mention that if someone is attempting to perform any illegal activity through the site, they'll get caught. With the current scandal and buzz associated with the Craigslist Killer, are you saying that you preferred it to happen on your site because of the trail of evidence rather than it happening outside your site because he could have gotten away with it a couple more times, but because of the evidence, he and people like him will get caught more efficiently?

CN: Well, you're referring to a specific ongoing investigation, and the cops have told us not to comment on it and not to disclose very much about it, because even now the cops have a lot of investigations going on through the Net, and I'm not going to risk tainting any evidence by talking out of turn.

JA: So then, hypothetically, on a theoretical level, do you prefer it to happen on your site?

CN: My personal perspective is broader. The idea again is that I talk to the cops and follow their lead. The comment that I guess I can pass on, because I spoke with several cops today, is that what they really want from us is that when they send us a search warrant we will respond quickly and cooperatively and not jerk 'em around. They're real happy with us about that.

JA: Has Osama bin Laden ever used Craigslist, and can you catch him?

CN: [Laughs] I don't really know if that's been the case. Not to our knowledge. The only references to that have been jokes and in poor taste.

JA: What is your reaction to the label "Craigslist Killer"?

CN: Basically, how would you feel if a bad guy used your site or resources for something and then people were calling him "the Jeremy Killer"? The deal is that the guy probably used the phone and they're not referring to him that way. The deal is that sometimes there are things I don't quite understand and it doesn't feel very good. But mostly, oh, my sadness is about the victims and the families of the victims, because those are the folks that suffer most. I feel badly for them, and again, I feel badly that our name was linked to this.

JA: From a branding standpoint, have you done anything to distance yourselves or your name from it?

CN: We've just spoken a lot to the press accurately and honestly. We do so in a restrained manner because, again, we want to be careful about ongoing investigations.

JA: Do you have any recommendations, after your experience with the Craigslist Killer debacle, for anybody that operates a site with user-generated content, in terms of getting blamed for the type of content that their users post on their site?

CN: I just don't know.

JA: Do you have any recommendations, after your experience with the Craigslist Killer debacle, for anybody that operates a site with user-generated content, in terms of getting blamed for the type of content that their users post on their site?

CN: I just don't know.

JA: Some say, based on the amount of sex trafficking on your site, that you can be considered the biggest pimp on the planet. What are your thoughts about that?

CN: People say all sorts of things.

JA: What do you think about the selection of the Portuguese Water Dog?

CN: Well, I love dogs and I carry around dog treats, so anything works for me.

Jeremy Abelson is the cofounder of Samson's Barber. Follow Jeremy Abelson on Twitter.