Is Craigslist Money Suitable for Human Trafficking Prevention Charities?

Frederick Melo reports on The Usual Suspects blog at that a local charity, The Advocates for Human Rights, has rejected a $25,000 donation from Craigslist because Craigslist is considered a venue for human trafficking.

This is an interesting position for The Advocates for Human Rights to take. While it certainly isn’t deniable that people involved in human trafficking may choose to use Craigslist as an advertising venue, that’s not exactly the same as Craigslist endorsing the behavior.

I wonder if The Advocates for Human Rights considered how law enforcement, in 2010, goes about identifying individuals and organizations that are involved in human trafficking?

I think The Advocates for Human Rights would be willing to admit that no one from Craiglist is directly smuggling humans, holding them against their will, and selling them for sexual services. Craigslist is the world’s most popular online classifieds site, which means that it sees ads for just about anything anyone could consider selling.

Has The Advocates for Human Rights considered where law enforcement turns when they attempt to crack down on human trafficking these days?

A service that makes it easy to advertise the services of trafficked humans happens to also make it relatively easy for law enforcement to identify the people or organizations placing the ads.

To place an ad, a person requires both an email and a credit card. Craigslist also uses SMS to cell phone numbers for further verification in some categories. With that in place, figuring out who’s behind an ad isn’t exactly rocket science, should the cops decide to pursue cases. Since this type of business involves two people meeting, simply picking up the phone to arrange a meeting is enough for law enforcement to get a feel for who’s involved and possibly where they’re working.

Considering how large Craigslist is today, and how familiar law enforcement is with the service, I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that Craigslist is the #1 source used by law enforcement to track and crack down on human trafficking in the United States today.

I wonder if The Advocates for Human Rights has considered what the alternatives to Craigslist are when it comes to prostitution advertising? If Craigslist completely removed every category that could conceivably be used for advertising the services of trafficked humans, would human trafficking be reduced? Of course not. It would simply move to other advertising venues, both online and offline.

Craigslist has a reputation for cooperating with police who pursue cases of human trafficking. Can the same be said for the other advertising venues used by human traffickers, such as alt-weekly magazines, yellow pages, and any of the other popular online classifieds sites?

So Craigslist collects contact information on potential human traffickers, along with up to $5 – $10 per ad that human traffickers place 1., cooperates with law enforcement when they’re working on cases, and attempts to donate the money they’ve brought in to organizations that work on human rights issues2., only to have their donations rejected and press releases issued explaining that they’re a bad organization.

Consider this for a second: If The Advocates for Human Rights just happened to be in charge of Craigslist, with the power to make any changes they wanted to Craigslist’s services, would they choose to turn off access to the contact information of sex traffickers and the revenue they provide? Wouldn’t The Advocates for Human Rights be in a stronger position to influence human trafficking around the world if human traffickers were handing over their contact information to them on a daily basis, and actually paying to do so? If they turned off the ads, they would no longer have access to the human trafficker’s contact information, or collect revenue from those traffickers that could be used against them. Instead, the human traffickers would immediately turn to other competing ad platforms outside of The Advocates for Human Rights’ control to promote their illegal services.

No, there is no black and white answer to issues like this, but it seems to me like The Advocates for Human Rights turned away a $25,000 opportunity to allow an organization that’s trying to do the right thing to actually do it. I hope that a different organization interested in preventing human trafficking, and in need of additional revenue3., will take Craigslist up on the offer.

1. If you’ve never taken a look at the Adult Services category on Craigslist, here’s a not safe for work link. The ads I see do not appear to be advertising legal services in all cases, but the vast majority do not appear to be advertising the services of people against their own will. I point this out simply to illustrate that, while human trafficking is a very serious issue, this type of press tends to overblow the reality of the issue on Craigslist.

2. Craigslist’s Charitable Fund focus areas are:

* peace and disarmament
* supporting US military veterans
* human trafficking and child exploitation
* social justice and civil liberties
* health and the environment
* journalism and new media
* sustainable transportation and energy
* clean water, poverty, and other developing world issues
* homelessness and other urban challenges
* education, and disadvantaged youth

3. The Advocates for Human Rights seems to be a fairly well funded organization with the backing of some of Minnesota’s largest law firms, so turning down a $25,000 donation may have been easier than it would be for other organizations working in this field. They wouldn’t receive the type of funding they receive if they weren’t a competent organization, so this isn’t meant as a slight. To me, it just provides some additional perspective on why they may have made the choice they did to turn down $25,000 from an organization with similar goals (and interesting revenue sources).

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