Advocates for Human Rights declines donation from Craigslist Fund over sex ads

The in-depth report [PDF] on sex trafficking in Minnesota pulled no punches, repeatedly naming sex ads on Craigslist.com in connection with specific cases in Coon Rapids, Eagan and other cities.

On Monday, the Minneapolis-based nonprofit that compiled the hard-hitting report — The Advocates for Human Rights — received a check for $25,000 from the Craigslist Charitable Fund of San Francisco.

The generous gift was unsolicited and totally unexpected, said Robin Phillips, The Advocates’ executive director.

It was sorely needed after a year in which grants for nonprofits fell off a cliff.

But it will be returned, Phillips said.

“They know what’s going on with their site, and they are allowing it to continue,” Phillips said. “Making contributions doesn’t make up for facilitating human sex trafficking, and it doesn’t begin to repair the damage.”

The Advocates’ grant funding is down about 30 percent from two years ago, she said. But she added: “We cannot compromise our core principals to help alleviate our financial challenges. We have documented Craigslist’s facilitation of human sex trafficking and child exploitation in our own research. We cannot accept profits from these human rights violations to support our work, no matter how great our need.”

Phillips said she had no idea why the charitable arm of the classified advertising giant chose to donate such a large sum to a relatively small human-rights organization in Minnesota.

The three-paragraph letter accompanying the check said simply that the grant was “to be used in furtherance of the organization’s charitable purposes,” and that it could not be used to “for propaganda, to influence legislation or on behalf of candidates for public office.”

Craigslist Charitable Fund did not return MinnPost’s calls and emails asking for comment last night and this morning.

Profits from sex ads
It’s no secret, though, that the popular website has an acute PR headache and maybe a legal problem too.

The New York Times reported last week that Craigslist is on track to increase its revenue 22 percent this year — largely from its controversial sex ads, including $36 million from ads that blatantly tout prostitution. That comes after Craigslist, under investigation by attorneys general in 40 states, promised last May that it would monitor its posts for illegal activity.

Craigslist keeps its finances private, and the company would not confirm the revenue projections that were calculated by Advanced Interactive Media Group. The estimates were based on the number of sex ads counted on Craigslist over the month of February and the fees for posting such ads — $10 initially and $5 for repeat postings.

“That financial success is reviving scrutiny from law-enforcement officials who say the ads are still being used for illegal ends,” the Times said.

A screen grab from Wednesday's Men Seeking Women listings in the Minneapolis section of Craigslist.
A screen grab from Wednesday’s Men Seeking Women listings in the Minneapolis section of Craigslist.

“Last week, in the latest example, the Federal Bureau of Investigation arrested 14 members of the Gambino crime family on charges of, among other things, selling the sexual services of girls ages 15 to 19 on Craigslist,” the Times said.

What happened to donations?
But law-enforcement officials have been fighting a mostly losing battle to get Craigslist to rein in the sex ads. Among other defenses, Craigslist has argued that it is legally protected by the Communications Decency Act against liability for what its users post.

James Buckmaster, Craigslist’s chief executive, had this to say to the Times: “Of the thousands of U.S. venues that carry adult service ads, including venues operated by some of the largest and best known companies in the U.S., Craigslist has done the best and most responsible job of combating child exploitation and human trafficking.”

Craigslist had been donating revenue from sex ads to charities, but the donations stopped during the uproar last year over running the ads at all, the Times reported.

This is where The Advocates in Minneapolis seems to fit into the picture: Connecticut’s attorney general, Richard Blumenthal, complained to a Craigslist lawyer last week about prostitution ads on the site, the Times said. Among other criticisms, he questioned the decision to stop donating profits from those ads to charities.

The Times also asked Craigslist why the profits weren’t going to charities. Buckmaster, the chief executive, responded in an email: “Misuse of Craigslist for criminal purposes is utterly unacceptable, and Craigslist will continue to work with its partners in law enforcement and at nongovernmental organizations until it is eliminated.”

He also said the company was continuing to develop its charitable initiatives.

Tainted money?
After the $25,000 check arrived at the offices of The Advocates in Minneapolis on Tuesday, the organization’s leaders tried calling the Craigslist Charitable Fund.

“I was trying to find out more about the context,” Phillips said. “The call wasn’t returned.”

The only “context” I could find in the public record was in the Form 990s that charities are required to file with the Internal Revenue Service. The most recent form for Craigslist Charitable Fund [PDF] was filed for the year 2008. It names Buckmaster and Craig Newmark, the Craigslist founder, as the fund’s uncompensated directors. And it says that Craigslist Inc. of San Francisco, the fund’s sole contributor, granted it $2.7 million. It does not say whether that sum came from sex ads.

Wherever the money came from, it’s seen as tainted in The Advocates’ offices.

“It is the exploitive behavior resulting from these ads that makes our efforts necessary,” The Advocates said in a statement.

Human trafficking and sexual exploitation of children have been leading causes for The Advocates. Human-rights groups rallied behind its report last year and persuaded the Minnesota Legislature to beef up the laws against the trafficking. Among other steps, the Legislature increased penalties and categorized sex trafficking as a “crime of violence” so there would be more restrictions on offenders and more aid for victims. It also expanded the list of those who could be held liable for sex trafficking.

Still, groups monitoring the issue say trafficking continues in the state. By extension, so does the need to fight it. That’s why the $25,000 must have been so very tempting for The Advocates.

“There is much work that remains to be done,” Jim Dorsey, who chairs The Advocates’ board of directors, said in a statement. “The Advocates, like many nonprofits, has been adversely affected by the economy. Therefore, we did not make the decision to turn down this grant lightly.”

Sharon Schmickle writes about international affairs, science and other topics for MinnPost.

Comments (7)

  1. Submitted by mike sweeney on 05/05/2010 - 10:52 am.

    I admire the decision by Robin Phillips and the Board to turn down the donation from Craigslist. I’m going to make a donation today to The Advocates for Human Rights and I would encourage other readers to do the same.

  2. Submitted by Alicia DeMatteo on 05/05/2010 - 12:45 pm.

    While I’m not very read-up on how Craigslist has been handling these ads and cooperating with law enforcement, I will say this: Craigslist is a very public, open exchange. A lot of good can come from it (I myself have been able to find a lot of recycled building materials through craigslist).

    Picture if you will, that Craigslist didn’t exist and we took all those ads and posted them on telephone poles around the city. Would you blame the telephone company for not taking down ads for illegal activities?

  3. Submitted by Taqee Khaled on 05/05/2010 - 05:08 pm.

    Here is how it could have sounded:

    “The Advocates recently received an unsolicited $25,000 donation from the Craigslist Charitable Fund. As the top online venue for the promotion and sale of sex trafficking, Craigslist is without a doubt a disgusting source of funding, but The Advocates unconditionally accepts this funding in order to continue its fight to end the ability of Craigslist and other venues to profit unethically from the trafficking of sex slaves. We hope this unsolicited and unconditional donation represents Craigslist’s understanding and recognition that its business model is flawed and subject to heinous manipulation, and that this money is a symbol of Craigslist’s commitment to end these practices and assist law enforcement in the dismantling of modern day slave trade. We hope this signals an end to the obstruction Craigslist has historically displayed, but are prepared to pursue them and similar organizations tirelessly, regardless of this and future ‘donations.'”

  4. Submitted by Henk Tobias on 05/05/2010 - 09:51 pm.

    It could have sounded like that if they wanted to lie. Do you have some proof of your wild accusations?

    Craigslist is one of the few, if not the only, venue that does not charge the average person an arm and a leg just to sell something. It is a threat to powerful interests, like the print media who lost most of their advertising to it. It is a threat to retail outlets, because it is too easy to recycle goods. Why buy it new when you can buy it on Craigslist used for a quarter of the price. It is a threat to used car dealers and its a threat to EBAY. EBAY is very big business and they would like nothing better than to see Craigslist gone.

    Finally Craigslist is a threat to the big money interests in general. Wall Street can not fathom that a site like this exists. It proves that to be successful a business does not have to suck every posible penny out of its users and that scares them.

    Craigslist is a populist site in a capitalist world. So that world is going after it with these attacks and outragious accusations like Taqees.

  5. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 05/06/2010 - 06:39 am.

    There is a reason that prostitution is the worlds oldest profession… The customer

  6. Submitted by Taqee Khaled on 05/06/2010 - 12:07 pm.

    Wow! I think Henk is misunderstanding my intent and, himself, is uninformed about the illegal activity that benefits CL’s coffers.

    TA said they didn’t want CL’s money, but in my opinion, they did so to their own detriment and in order to score PR points on a national level. I wrote the statement to highlight how easy it would have been to maintain TA’s viewpoint and still take the money without remorse – which they certainly should have done. TA not taking the money proves they’re not serious about supporting their work and more interested in scoring political points – a terrible idea.

    As for Henk’s generally strange and amoral free marketplace defense of CL:

    CL is among the best online tools for marketing and advertising on a P2P level – everyone agrees! But do you have any idea how much illegal sex trade is occurring on CL and sites like it? If you want to sit back and say “oh, well: that’s capitalism,” then I’ve nothing to say to you. Any given point in history has laws that should be instituted and laws that should be removed. Just because something may be technically legal at a given point does not mean it is not morally reprehensible in many cases.

    In CL’s case, their sex ads facilitate prostitution, interstate/international sex trafficking, and child endangerment/sexual abuse. Should CL sit back and gain from that instead of fighting for better control of those abuses? Of course not. Is it legally allowed to: in many ways, yes.

    Lawmakers and law enforcement of course have the ultimate upstream responsibility to institute and enforce regulations that prevent illegal online sex trade, but for Henk to chalk it up to the status quo is akin to business owners who refused to serve blacks because there were legal entitled to do so and would suffer financial externalities in doing otherwise.

    It’s a poor argument, Henk. CL is a great resource and of coure it’s a threat to established corporate business models, but their freedom is not a single edged sword, by any means.

  7. Submitted by James Hamilton on 05/07/2010 - 01:58 am.

    If two people can meet in a bar and go elsewhere for consensual sex at no charge and without violating any law, what difference should it make if one pays? None, in my mind. Why they choose to do so is none of our concern, so long as the choice is free from compulsion by a third party.

    Legalize adult prostitution, regulate it, and tax it. Then get serious about illegal sex trafficking, child endangerment and sexual abuse, by which I mean tough criminal and financial penalties (e.g, seizure, RICO) for those profiting from illegal activities and other policies which make the cost of doing business too high.

    Close down Craiglist as an advertising source and all you’ll have done is divert the ads and revenue to others.

    I agree that AFHR should have taken the money and criticized CL at the same time, as suggested above and suggest those who missed Ruben Rosario’s recent piece on a related subject take a minute to read it now:

    http://www.twincities.com/rosario/ci_15026537

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