The Upshot

What about Google’s sex ads?

The Upshot

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Last week, the online classified bulletin board Craigslist replaced the link to the fabled "Adult Services" section on its homepage with a black "censored" box. It was Craigslist's way, apparently, of saying it was doing away with the ads for good after anti-trafficking advocates and law enforcement agencies had repeatedly assailed the company for maintaining the controversial service. Indeed, the move came less than a week after 17 attorneys general sent Craigslist a sharply worded letter demanding that the company take the ads down and bow to the "growing recognition that ads for prostitution — including ads trafficking children — are rampant on" the site.

The move is unlikely to do a great deal to dampen sketchy sex-themed advertising. As some observers have already noted, advertisers of such services have begun posting their ads on other sections of Craigslist — and international versions of the site still feature an "erotic" ads section that can provide cover for sex trafficking. And far more important, Craigslist is not the only service available online that publishes such ads.  Google is doing it, right now. And Connecticut's attorney general, Richard Blumenthal, who organized the appeal to pull the plug on the Craigslist's adult ads, told The Upshot that he's running "ongoing investigations into forums beyond Craigslist."

If you go to Google and enter the search terms "escort service philadelphia," the very first thing you see at the very top of the search results will be a banner reading "For Your Dream Come True." That display directs users to www.phillytonight.info, "Philadelphias #1 Agency. Open 24/7." It is a paid ad, purchased to show up anytime someone goes to Google looking for an escort in Philadelphia. And a quick trip to phillytonight.info demonstrates that it is, indeed, a service whereby you can pay for a woman to come "get wet and wild" with you. Multiple hour discounts are available.

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You'll get similar results with the search string "escort service new york," which will take you to a paid ad for Pure Platinum Models, where you can order up "hourly, multi-hour, dinner dates, overnight as well as travel companions" via credit card.

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Last week the Boston Globe, following the lead of the attorneys general letter, editorialized that Craigslist should kill the adult ads and stop "profiting off of prostitution." But as blogger Dave Copeland pointed out, the Globe had something of a mote in its eye as it castigated the online traffic in sex ads: A search for "escorts" on the paper's site, boston.com, will return a slew of ads for escort services, which presumably create revenues for the Globe. Google, which "powers" the ads, also realizes a profit on them.

The Globe quickly disabled the ads after Copeland publicized them and announced an investigation into how and why its "policy to not run ads for adult services" was violated. It's perhaps not immaterial to note, in the context of the Globe's unfortunate attack, that Craigslist has often in the past been a whipping boy for print-media outlets that believe the site has largely destroyed the business model for newspaper publishers.

Google has a similar policy to the Globe's, on paper. Its guidelines state that "Google AdWords prohibits the promotion of escort services, prostitution, or related content," a prohibition that applies to both the content of any ads and the content of any sites an ad links to. Google did not respond to an inquiry asking how that policy seems to have been ignored in the case of searches for "escort services new york" and "escort services philadelphia."

Another Internet company, it should be noted, that offers escort services an opportunity to market themselves is Yahoo! Here, for instance, is how #1 VIP California Escorts in Los Angeles makes use of Yahoo! Local's free business directory listing to tell interested parties about its "high class private outcall service for your discreet, passionate, and intimate encounter":

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A Yahoo! corporate representative declined comment on the ads.

Craigslist CEO Jim Buckmaster has angrily complained about an apparent double standard when it comes to online sex ads. EBay, for instance features explicitly pornographic ads for prostitutes on Loquo.com, its Spanish subsidiary, yet maintains a reputation as a "family friendly" service. A Facebook group called "Stop Craigslist Human Trafficking — Choose Ebay Classifieds" has even emerged to encourage users to direct their business away from Craigslist to EBay over the sex-ads issue. When critics noted some of Loquo.com's explicit ads for prostitutes, EBay responded by making the site unavailable to U.S. IP addresses, but a check of the site via proxy servers confirmed that it hadn't immediately removed the offending the ads. (As of Wednesday, the site was apparently inaccessible to proxy servers as well.)

Meanwhile, the alternative press continues doing a brisk business in adult ads, in both print and online formats. Village Voice Media's backpage.com, which so far has not drawn the public ire of attorneys general, features an abundance of escort ads. According to Buckmaster, backpage.com's traffic increased five-fold in May 2009 after Craigslist began manually screening its adult ads to weed out the obviously illegal ones. (Full disclosure: This reporter's wife is employed by Village Voice Media.)

So why is Craigslist taking all the heat for adult ads when some far larger companies are just as happy to run them? We asked Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, who took the lead in organizing the attorneys general letter. Here's the statement his spokesperson released in response:

I am deeply troubled by blatant prostitution in any media outlet, and have ongoing investigations into forums beyond craigslist.

Craigslist has been a national leader in prostitution -- far exceeding others in scope and scale. I am hopeful that craigslist will serve as a model for all others in the industry -- by making a permanent promise to eliminate its adult services section, and taking steps to stop prostitution ads from migrating to other portions of its site.

At least dozens of prostitution arrests in Connecticut directly resulted from Craigslist prostitution advertisements -- demonstrating the immediate and significant public safety threat.

Craigslist did not respond to a request for comment.

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