In a decision that is being applauded by Internet Service Providers (ISPs), the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois dismissed a civil lawsuit brought by the Sheriff of Cook County against Craigslist (Dart v. Craigslist, 09 C 1385). Sheriff Thomas Dart, along with law enforcement authorities in 43 states, had tried to get Craigslist to screen and prevent posting of ads for sex services. Craigslist is a for-profit company, with about 30 employees based in San Francisco. It claims that it has done all it could do to discourage and prevent such ads. Sheriff Dart, however, was not satisfied. Claiming that Craigslist ran the biggest prostitution service in the country, he filed a civil lawsuit alleging that Craigslist’s adult services listing (formerly “erotic” services) constituted a public nuisance under Illinois law. The District Court dismissed the case, finding that the federal Communications Decency Act (CDA) preempted state nuisance law in this case. The CDA provides that no interactive computer service can be treated as a publisher or speaker of information posted on the service by other people. (Isn’t that an interesting way of promoting decency in communications?)
While the District Court’s decision is undoubtedly correct as a matter of federal law, it is hard not to sympathize with Sheriff Dart. With state and local government budgets being squeezed by declining tax collections in the current recession, law enforcement agencies are looking for help wherever they can find it. The internet has taken prostitution out of red light districts and made it available at the click of a mouse. Shouldn’t those who profit from spreading the offensive messages bear a large share of the cost of enforcing the law? Maybe ISPs should be treated more like newspapers than telephone companies. No one wants to shoot the messenger, but don’t we at least have the right to expect them to help enforce the law? Especially when the messenger is profiting handsomely from the enterprise.