Craigslist Accused of Ad Discrimination

By DAVE CARPENTER, AP Business Writer
A federal lawsuit accuses the online site Craigslist of violating fair
housing laws by publishing discriminatory classified ads, reviving the
question of what legal boundaries, if any, should exist for postings
on the Internet.
But legal experts say the lawsuit against Craigslist, a fast-growing
online network of classified ads and forums, faces an uphill battle
because of laws in place to protect online service providers.
The lawsuit, filed by a Chicago fair housing group in U.S. District
Court last Friday, contends that Craigslist's Chicago site distributed
more than 100 ads that violated the federal Fair Housing Act by
excluding prospective buyers or tenants on the basis of race, gender
or religion.
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 nonprofit group is an affiliate of the National Fair Housing
Alliance. Its Louisiana affiliate, the Greater New Orleans Fair
Housing Action Center, recently filed a similar complaint against the
hurricane relief Web site Katrinahousing.org, alleging it found 68
discriminatory housing ads.
San Francisco-based Craigslist, founded in 1995 as a roundup of local
events, now has listings in more than 20 countries and 150 cities and
runs 8 million new classified ads a month. Its huge scope means the
Chicago case will likely be watched closely by other online
sites. EBay Inc. owns 25 percent of Craigslist.
A ruling against it "would have a chilling effect on the Internet and
what it was intended to provide, and that is an open forum and free
expression," said Melissa Klipp, a Florham Park, N.J.-based attorney
who practices Internet law.
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.
"We admit that one or two postings per 100,000 are discriminatory,"
Buckmaster said. "But we feel we're in the forefront of promoting fair
housing for everyone."
The site last month added a yellow link on each housing ad warning
that "Stating a discriminatory preference in a housing post is
illegal." When clicked, users get information about the Fair Housing
Act and guidance on how to write ads that comply.
Several Internet law experts said the suit seems likely to fail,
citing a 1996 federal law that says an online service provider isn't
considered a publisher or a speaker when it merely passes along
information provided by someone else.
Jennifer Rothman, a law professor at Washington University in
St. Louis, called it "a complete nonstarter" despite legitimate
concerns about discrimination.
"Congress decided it was more important not to chill speech on the
Internet and not to shut down these Internet providers," she said. "If
you start holding them responsible, essentially you shut down the
business."
"From a moral standpoint, of course, people will expect that if you're
going to run a site like that you ought to police it," said
Houston-based attorney Jeff Diamant. "But all Craigslist is doing is
running a forum for people to communicate."
Copyright 2006 The Associated Press.
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