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More Heat for Craigslist Over Erotic Services Ads

Facing down intensifying scrutiny over criminal activity linked to its Web site, Craigslist is staying cagey about any changes it might make to its listings policies.

Craigslist, no stranger to controversy, has most recently grabbed headlines in connection with a medical student who allegedly shot and killed Julissa Brisman, a 26-year-old masseuse who placed an ad in the erotic services section of the popular classified site.

Philip Markoff, 23, has been dubbed the "Craigslist killer," and is implicated in the robberies of several women he met through the site.

The Markoff case has brought renewed calls for Craigslist to get tough on ads linked to prostitution on its site, ads which critics say too often lead to violent crimes and exploitation. But in an appearance on ABC's "Nightline," Craigslist founder Craig Newmark said that he feels bad for the victims of crimes linked to the site, but disputed the characterization that Craigslist facilitates prostitution.

"My first reaction is sympathy. I mean, I fell pretty bad for the victims and their families. I don't like it at all," Newmark said. But when asked about changes his company would make to crack down on postings that promoted illicit activity -- such as eliminating the "erotic services" and "casual encounters" sections of the site -- Newmark demurred, saying only that Craigslist, true to its roots, remains a community-driven venture.

"The decisions we make on our site are consistently based on feedback from the entirety of the community -- 50 million or more Americans, plus literally hundreds of people in the law enforcement community," he said.

But some law enforcement officials say Craigslist isn't going far enough.

In a letter sent to the company last week, Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal called on Craigslist to "stop the pimping and prostitution in plain sight."

Blumenthal outlined several policy changes to build on the agreement his office and 42 other attorneys general reached with Craiglist in November to keep ads linked to prostitution or human trafficking off the site.

Blumenthal is asking Craigslist to either ban images on the erotic service section of the site, or to deploy technology that would screen for pornographic content. He also called on the company to immediately hire staff dedicated to combing through the site for illicit ads and pornography.

In November, Craigslist agreed to start charging a fee for listings in the erotic services section which entails a credit-card verification. It also requires posters to supply a working phone number, and the company is donating proceeds from erotic services listings to charity.

Blumenthal credited Craigslist for its past cooperation with law enforcement, but said that the Markoff case demonstrates that there is still more that needs to be done to clean up the site.

"The Boston Craigslist killer case shows again that prostitution is not a victimless crime," he said. "Prostitution ads and pornography -- easily accessed by children every day on Craigslist -- are often associated with human trafficking, drug activity and child exploitation."

Craigslist CEO Jim Buckmaster responded in a blog post that the company has made progress since the November agreement in removing illicit ads from the site, and that it would "have more to say on this subject in the days and weeks ahead."

[cob:Pull_Quote]Appearing on "Nightline," Buckmaster pledged that the company would redouble its efforts to educate users about Internet safety, but stopped short of committing to concrete policy changes.

"We're in 100 percent agreement with Attorney General Blumenthal that crime needs to be eliminated from Craigslist entirely," he said. "We're shocked and horrified any time we hear of a violent crime or any crime being linked to our site in any way."

Buckmaster did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The high-profile Markoff case is only the latest instance of a violent crime connected with Craigslist.

Last month, New York radio reporter George Weber was stabbed to death after arranging a meeting through Craigslist. Sixteen-year-old John Katehis, a self-described sadomasochist, confessed to answering Weber's ad for rough sex and stabbing him 50 times in the neck and body at his Brooklyn apartment.

Earlier this month, Michael John Anderson was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole by a Minnesota judge for the murder of Katherine Olsen, 24, who had answered an ad for a babysitter he posted on Craigslist.

Craigslist, an online bazaar for everything from finding a job to selling a couch or starting a book group, maintains that with tens of millions of visitors, "incidence of violent crime on Craigslist is vanishingly low."

Nevertheless, the company is facing a lawsuit from an Illinois sheriff seeking to force the removal of the erotic services section. Last month, Cook County Sheriff Thomas Dart sued Craigslist in federal court, calling the site "the largest source of prostitution in America."