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Leslie Harris

Leslie Harris

Posted April 24, 2009 | 10:35 AM (EST)

Because "Classified Ad Killer" Doesn't Have the Same Ring


The latest indictment of the Demon Internet comes in the form of the so-called "Craigslist Killer" who allegedly trolled the online community's adult-services listings to find his victims. Sadly, a young woman is dead and others victimized at the hands of a clearly psychotic individual. However, if tradition holds, this tragic incident will become yet another rallying cry for those who'd like to curtail freedom and openness on the Internet.

What if the criminal in question had lured his victims using newspaper classifieds? Would we be calling this the Boston Globe Killer? Or better yet the Boston Phoenix Killer, which has numerous ads for massage services? Would the news networks be hosting a parade of talking heads calling for sweeping new content and usage restrictions for newspapers?

I think we all know the answer to those questions.

Newspapers classifieds are not a mystery to people. Most see classified ads as useful tools for buying and selling goods and services. They understand implicitly that they must exercise caution when dealing with strangers and take appropriate precautions.

After more than a decade as a regular facet of our day-to-day lives, it's time for us to start treating the Internet with the same clear-headedness.

A great many of the tragic incidents that tangentially involve the Internet have little or nothing to do with the Internet itself. The Craigslist case is the latest example of that phenomenon. Craigslist is an innovative and valuable resource, which frankly, is being unfairly smeared because it is an Internet site.

In scanning adult services ads, the perpetrator in this case was clearly seeking out vulnerable victims. Whether on the streets or online, women in that business have been targets for violence since long before the advent of computers. From Jack the Ripper, to the Green River Killer to the so-called "Craigslist Killer," evil men have targeted culturally marginalized women. That the most recent criminal to follow this violent pattern used Craigslist to find his victims may be novel, but it does not make the crime unique, or deserving of special regulatory focus.

The danger of this alarmist, tabloid response to all-things-Internet, is not only that it needlessly frightens people away from using safe, effective Internet tools, but that it undermines the tremendous social and economic value that innovative Internet communities like Craigslist, MySpace and Facebook have created for users around the world.

It is clear that bad people will continue to abuse these networks, but it is equally clear that the net impact of these tools on our society and economy has been overwhelmingly positive. To maintain that balance, it is vital for users to take precautions when interacting with strangers online; for Internet companies to establish and enforce effective safety policies; and for law enforcement officials to aggressively pursue the criminals who abuse these tools.

What is counterproductive is the predictable clamor for newer, more restrictive laws every time one of the Internet's billion users does something illegal.

Lost in the hubbub, is the extraordinary value that Craigslist provides to millions of Internet users everyday, and the significant, voluntary changes that Craigslist has already made to increase the safety of the people using adult postings. Craigslist requires customers who post adult ads to provide their names, addresses and credit card numbers as a condition of posting on the site. The digital paper trail created by these policies has significantly cut down on adult ads, weeding out illegal services while providing law enforcement with enough verifiable information to track down bad actors

It will be a good thing for the Internet when its longstanding novelty finally wears off. It will help us all be a little more critical about the good and bad online, and about what actually constitutes a unique electronic threat, versus a real-world problem with an inevitable online analog. On the bad side, the media may have to find a new villain.