Internet discrimination and Craigslist

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The Chicago Lawyer's Committee for Civil Rights Under Law is currently suing Craigslist over some discriminatory housing ads that were posted on the Chicago site (press release here):
Among the housing ads cited as objectionable by the Chicago Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law Inc. were ones that read "NO MINORITIES," "Requirements: Clean Godly Christian Male," and "Only Muslims apply."

While it remained unclear Thursday if the suit is the first of its kind, it signifies a burgeoning effort by housing watchdog groups to extend to the Internet the same legal restrictions facing those that publish print classifieds.

"Our goal is to have the Internet places like Craigslist treated no differently than newspapers and other media who have traditionally been posting real estate advertisements," said Stephen Libowsky, a counsel for the housing group. "All of the gains are going to get lost if the same rules don't apply."

...

The lawsuit seeks, among other things, to require Craigslist to report to the government any individual seeking to post a discriminatory ad and to develop screening software to preclude discriminatory ads from being published on its Web site.

Craigslist, which has 19 employees, maintains that screening its almost-nonstop classified listings would be impossible. Jim Buckmaster, its chief executive officer, said Thursday that the system is automated and that users can flag postings. If enough do, it comes off automatically. The "NO MINORITIES" ad was removed within two hours, he said.

Let's stipulate that these ads are discriminatory and violate the Fair Housing Act. Does Craigslist have any responsibility.

In order to make sense of this it's important to understand how a system like Craigslist works. Basically, it's just a big database with a Web site front-end. Users can enter ads and they are automatically added to the database and show up whenever someone does a particular kind of search. No human needs to be involved for a site like this to run at all and to a first order, many smaller sites of this type run with minimal human intervention. Contrast this with a system like newspaper classifieds where (at least until recently) you needed a human to transcribe ads and typeset them on the page.

Any system like this generally ends up with an abuse problem, and Craigslist is no exception. As indicated in the article, Craigslist deals with this by letting users report postings that are inappropriate. One natural response at this point--and one that apparently the CLCRUL has used--is to argue that sites should use automated filters, but in general this is only practical for really obvious cases of abuse such as first posters, swearing, etc. The problem here is analogous to spam--the attackers just adapt too quickly. All major sites I know of have to use human moderation to keep abuse under control at all. Typically the objective here isn't to totally prevent abuse but just to keep it to an acceptable level.

If you want to really reduce abuse below that level, pretty much the only alternative is to have some human actually examine each listing. This is obviously expensive and substantially reduces the cost and convenience advantage that an automated site offers over something where a human is involved in every transaction. Maybe that's a cost worth bearing to reduce housing discrimination, but it's something we should decide to do explicitly, not just by blindly applying rules from a radically different medium.

All that said, it's worth noting that Craigslist appears to carry advertisements for services that are clearly illegal, most notably prostitution. There's even a special forum for that, so the excuse that filtering is difficult doesn't really apply there. I'm not sure what the rationale is here (other than the obvious free speech one)--perhaps to avoid people spamming the other forums?

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EKR's "rebuttal" above seems to argue that it's unreasonable to expect a user-amended database to act the way the Chicago Lawyer's Committee wants.

"Unreasonability" is not the issue. The issue is the law. It's possible that current law places a requirement on Crag's List and all similar services that will force them to close until the law is fixed.

Would anyone like to present an argument in favor of Craig's List based on Illinois law?

- The Precision Blogger
http://precision-blogging.blogspot.com

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