Last August, seventeen State Attorneys General submitted a letter to the administrators of Craigslist, demanding that they take down its popular Adult Services section. In their letter and in interviews with the press, the AGs claimed that the section facilitated "prostitution," "human trafficking," and "the exploitation of women and children." After a year of negotiations with the website, during which Craigslist had begun having every post in the section reviewed by an attorney before it was made public on the website, the AGs still felt that the section's content posed a hazard to the public, and upped their pressure for the section to be removed entirely.
I first heard of this conflict from a story on NPR's "All Things Considered" program, in which Michelle Block interviewed Chris Koster, Missouri's State Attorney General, a co-signator on the letter. I found the story riveting, because the rhetoric Koster used to justify the AGs' targeting of Craigslist instantly reminded me of the debates that raged around the "Great Internet Sex Panic of 1995," when hysteria over the availability of pornography online, and specifically children's access to it, paved the way for the passage of the Communications Decency Act in 1996, the first federal legislation to attempt to regulate both indecency and obsenity within the context of the Internet (oddly enough as part of a larger act, the 1996 Telecommunications Act, that was otherwise devoted to the deregulation of the telecommuications industry). The Internet wasn't new in 1996, but it was in the midst of its first wave of popularization, and the jury was still out on how this technology would fit into the social fabric. In the imagination of many Americans and their elected representatives, the race was on to make the Internet a "safe" place--but at what cost, and to whom?
As cultural anthopologist Gayle Rubin points out in "Thinking Sex: notes towards a radical theory of the politics of sexuality," "[Forms of sexuality] are imbued with conflicts of interest and political maneuvering, both deliberate and incidental. In that sense, sex is always political." Rubin continues: "For over a century, no tactic for stirring up erotic hysteria has been as reliable as the appeal to protect children." It has been over a decade since the passage of the CDA, but as the Craigslist debate indicates, the project of disciplining the Internet is an ongoing one. Stayed tuned to see what comes next.