SAN FRANCISCO — Craigslist, by shutting off its “adult services” section and slapping a “censored” label in its place, is engaging in what some analysts describe as a high-stakes stunt to influence public opinion.
Since blocking the adult services ads as the Labor Day weekend began — and suspending a revenue stream that could bring in an estimated $44 million this year — Craigslist has refused to discuss its motivations. But using the word “censored” suggests that the increasingly combative company is trying to draw attention to its fight with state attorneys general over adult ads and to issues of free speech on the Internet.
The law has been on Craigslist’s side. The federal Communications Decency Act protects websites against liability for what their users post on the sites. And last year, the efforts of attorneys general were stymied when a federal judge blocked South Carolina’s attorney general from prosecuting Craigslist executives for listings that resulted in prostitution arrests.
“It certainly appears to be a statement about how they feel about being judged in the court of public opinion,” said Thomas R. Burke, a First Amendment lawyer at Davis Wright Tremaine who specializes in Internet law and does not work for Craigslist. “It’s certainly the law that they’re not liable for it, but it’s another matter if the attorneys general are saying change your ways.”
Attorneys general and advocacy groups have continued to pressure the company to remove the adult services section. A letter from 17 state attorneys general dated Aug. 24 demanded that Craigslist close the section, contending that it helped facilitate prostitution and the trafficking of women and children.
The adult services section of Craigslist was still blocked in the United States on Sunday evening. “Sorry, no statement,” Susan MacTavish Best, Craigslist’s spokeswoman, wrote on Sunday in response to an e-mail message.
Analysts said that if the block was a temporary statement of protest, it could backfire because of the avalanche of news coverage that the site had received for taking down the ads.
“I’m very convinced that this is permanent, even if it was not their intention to make it permanent,” said Peter M. Zollman, founding principal of the Advanced Interactive Media Group, a consulting firm that follows Craigslist closely. “I think it will be difficult, if not impossible, for them to go back and reopen that section without really running into a buzzsaw of negative publicity and reaction.”
Attorneys general in several states said they had so far been unable to get any information from Craigslist.
“If this announcement is a stunt or a ploy, it will only redouble our determination to pursue this issue with Craigslist, because they would be in a sense be thumbing their nose at the public interest,” Richard Blumenthal, the Connecticut attorney general who has spearheaded the campaign against Craigslist, said in an interview by phone on Sunday.