The South Carolina attorney general gave the management of the Web site Craigslist 10 days to remove postings that he said are pornographic or that encourage prostitution, or face a possible criminal investigation.
"It appears that the management of Craigslist has knowingly allowed the site to be used for illegal and unlawful activity after warnings from law enforcement officials and after an agreement with forty state attorneys general," South Carolina Attorney General Henry McMaster wrote today in a letter to Craigslist CEO Jim Buckmaster.
McMaster was referring to a November agreement with 40 attorneys general in which Craigslist said it would take a number of steps to combat online prostitution, including charging people who post ads in the "erotic services" section $5 to $10 and requiring them to submit a working phone number to use the site. The information can be used by law enforcement to investigate suspected illegal activity.
McMaster and other attorneys general said today that Craigslist was not doing enough to keep prostitution and pornography off the site and said the company could potentially face lawsuits or criminal investigations, though McMaster was the only one who publicly threatened the site with possible criminal prosecution.
"I think the walls are really closing in on Craigslist," said Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan.
The threatened prosecution comes as Craigslist has come under increasing scrutiny because of several high-profile alleged crimes that have involved the popular Web site, most recently the so-called "Craigslist Killer," who police say targeted women who advertised exotic services on the site.
But, some attorneys questioned whether a successful case could be brought against Craigslist. Under federal law, Web sites like Craigslist generally are not liable for content posted by their users.
"This sounds like posturing on the part of a state official, an effort to use what limited leverage he has over Craigslist," said David Ardia, the director of the Citizen Media Law Project at Harvard University's Berkman Center for Internet and Society. "I think it's very unlikely that criminal or civil liability would exist."
McMaster said Craigslist could face a criminal investigation, and possible prosecution, unless it removes "the portions of the Internet site dedicated to South Carolina and its municipal regions, which contain categories for and functions allowing for the solicitation of prostitution and the dissemination and posting of graphic pornographic material."
Meanwhile, Craigslist lawyers met today with the attorneys general of Illinois, Connecticut and Missouri, who asked for better policing or the removal of ads in the "erotic services" section of the site, which Madigan said was essentially "nothing more than an Internet brothel."
In a statement, Buckmaster said the company had a "productive meeting" with the attorneys general.
"We are optimistic that our shared concerns can be addressed while preserving the beneficial aspects of Craigslist enjoyed by tens of millions of law-abiding Americans each month, without compromising the quintessentially American values of free speech embodied in our Constitution," he said.
Madigan and Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal said they did not threaten to bring criminal prosecutions against company officials at the meeting, but Blumenthal said the company was given "a short time frame" to respond.