Craigslist Sued Over Housing Ads Content

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A civil rights group has sued Craigslist for allowing users to post discriminatory housing advertisements on the Web site. Amazon, AOL, eBay, Google and Yahoo have weighed in on Craigslist's side.


Some titans of the Internet have filed a brief supporting the Web site Craigslist in a civil rights lawsuit. Google, Yahoo, AOL and others do not want Craigslist to be held responsible for discriminatory housing ads that users post on the site.

NPR's Ari Shapiro reports.

ARI SHAPIRO reporting:

Requirements: Clean, Godly, Christian male. A newspaper could never run that ad for a renter. It violates the Fair Housing Act. But according to the Chicago Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, Craigslist did run that ad, along with many others that wouldn't make it in a print publication.

One poster wrote: looking for gay Latino. Another advertised: African-Americans and Arabians tend to clash with me, so that won't work out.

Stephen Libowsky represents the Lawyers' Committee.

Mr. STEPHEN LIBOWSKY (Attorney, Chicago Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law): We believe that there's nothing in the Fair Housing Act or in the Communications Decency Act that allows Craigslist to operate differently than the other entities which post ads for housing opportunities.

SHAPIRO: As classified ads increasingly move to the web, civil rights groups want to make sure anti-discrimination laws apply in any venue. But Craigslist CEO, Jim Buckmaster, says his company is very different from a print publication.

Mr. JIM BUCKMASTER (CEO, Craigslist): Our site is more of a self-service platform for people to exchange ideas and information on any topic they choose without any intervention by staff.

SHAPIRO: Whereas a newspaper, he says, is a publication where staffers control every word. Craigslist only has 21 employees, and the site gets more than 10 million postings a month.

Mr. BUCKMASTER: They would like us to be personally responsible for the content of every posting submitted by a user on our site. You know, that's not a defensible position for a largely free classified service.

SHAPIRO: The Lawyers' Committee says the question is not whether Craigslist could easily comply with the law, it's whether the company has an obligation to comply. Libowski says newspaper made the same arguments 40 years ago that Craigslist is making today.

Mr. LIBOWSKY: Complaining that things like the Fair Housing Act either shouldn't apply to them, or that the strictures of the statute were very difficult to comply with, and the courts in those instances said the Act clearly applied to newspapers and that newspapers needed to figure out a way to deal with the problem and, of course, they have.

SHAPIRO: But so far, that's not what most courts have said about the Internet, according to Raymond Ku. He teaches Internet law at Case Western Reserve University. He says the courts have tended to treat Internet service providers as information conduits, not publishers.

Professor RAYMOND KU (Professor of Law, Case Western Reserve University): So, for example, your telephone company doesn't look and monitor the telephone calls to say these calls should go through and these shouldn't, and as a result of that they're given much greater immunity.

SHAPIRO: The person who makes an offensive comment can be sued, but courts have not held companies like AOL responsible for providing chat rooms where people make offensive comments. If Craigslist loses this lawsuit, it could have a huge impact on companies like AOL, Google, Yahoo and Amazon. That's why those companies filed a brief supporting Craigslist. John Palfrey directs the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School.

Professor JOHN PALFREY (Executive Director, Berkman Center for Internet and Society, Harvard Law School): The practical argument, of course, is it would be enormously expensive if you had to monitor everything on every Web site that somebody was publishing on your service.

SHAPIRO: Amazon might have to hire people to monitor millions of book reviews. Google could be responsible for everything people published on the company's free blogger service. Palfrey says, in addition to the practical argument, there's also one based on principle.

Prof. PALFREY: There's an argument that said you don't want an e-Bay or a Craigslist or a Google monitoring everything that gets put online and actually acting as censors throughout the Internet that they're publishing.

SHAPIRO: He says if Craigslist loses this suit, there could be broader accountability for what people say on the Web, and that might begin to limit the chaotic, unfiltered, sometimes offensive speech that fills the Internet today.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News.

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