On Thursday, Craigslist shut down its personals section—including its dating and “casual encounters” sections—indefinitely in response to Congress’ passage of FOSTA, a law that holds websites criminally liable for the actions of their users. If you try to visit any of Craigslist’s personals sections, including the distinctively chaste “strictly platonic” segment, this is what you’ll see:
US Congress just passed HR 1865, “FOSTA”, seeking to subject websites to criminal and civil liability when third parties (users) misuse online personals unlawfully.
Any tool or service can be misused. We can’t take such risk without jeopardizing all our other services, so we are regretfully taking craigslist personals offline. Hopefully we can bring them back some day.
To the millions of spouses, partners, and couples who met through craigslist, we wish you every happiness!
Craigslists’ pioneering personals section has been operating in various capacities since the website launched in the mid-’90s. Often viewed by the public as a lurid and obscene corner of the internet, it nonetheless prefigured today’s sprawling online dating scene. It was a freewheeling, woman-friendly, pro-sex place if used correctly, which many did, and an example of how useful the anonymity and freedom of the internet could be.
More importantly, it provided a safer venue for sex workers, who were able to use the site to operate on their own terms. From Emma Roller’s expansive look at FOSTA’s sister bill, SESTA, and its effect on sex workers’ safety:
Research shows sex workers are safer when they’re able to screen their clients online before meeting with them. A 2017 study from researchers at Baylor University and West Virginia University estimated that Craigslist’s “erotic services” section “reduced female homicide rates by as much as 17.4%”—a staggering number for anyone concerned with reducing violence against women.
Reddit also preemptively banned several sub-Reddits this week. As the Electronic Frontier Foundation notes, FOSTA and SESTA are overly broad and punitive measures that could affect free speech in all corners of the internet, making it difficult for companies to host even less racy content without fear of litigation. From the EFF:
SESTA/FOSTA undermines Section 230, the most important law protecting free speech online. Section 230 protects online platforms from liability for some types of speech by their users. Without Section 230, the Internet would look very different. It’s likely that many of today’s online platforms would never have formed or received the investment they needed to grow and scale—the risk of litigation would have simply been too high. Similarly, in absence of Section 230 protections, noncommercial platforms like Wikipedia and the Internet Archive likely wouldn’t have been founded given the high level of legal risk involved with hosting third-party content.
Craigslist shut down its “erotic services” section in 2010, in the midst of criticism from state attorneys and advocacy groups that it facilitated “sex trafficking.” Craigslist’s personals section, with its whimsical missed connections and more direct “casual encounters” sections, is one of the first websites, and certainly the most ubiquitous, to be affected by Wednesday’s 97-2 vote. It will not be the last.