Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Craigslist Sued for Housing Discrimination

Popular ad site Craigslist is being sued by a Chicago activist group for permitting discriminatory ads to run on the housing section of the web site. Among the ads cited by the group in their suit are some which requested housing applicants be of particular racial or religious backgrounds.

Print newspapers are required to review all ads for housing to ensure that they do not violate the federal Fair Housing Act, which bars discrimination on the grounds of race, religion, sex, family status or national origin. Rather than having official editors review each posting, Craigslist relies on its community of millions of users. When a reader sees an ad which is offensive, illegal, misclassified, or otherwise objectionable, they click a link on the site to "flag" the ad for review by one of Craigslist's 19 paid staffers. Ads which violate the rules or the law are typically quickly flagged and removed.

The crux of the case against Craigslist will be whether the online site is a "publisher" in the same sense that a newspaper. The activist group's spokeswoman, Laurie Wardell, acknowledged that the conventional wisdom is that online sites do not have the same legal responsibilities as print publications, noting that advertisers wishing to discriminate "just shift to the Internet".

Print newspapers are losing enormous quantities of their lucrative classified ad businesses to Craigslist and to other sites, largely because the online sites are faster, have larger user bases, and are often free. (Analysts estimate that newspapers in the San Francisco area alone lose between $50 and $65 million. This lawsuit is in essence an attempt to rein in the Internet, to require it to follow the same standards as the print publications.

The activist group in question, Chicago Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, released a press release announcing their suit. The release focused on why housing discrimination is bad, and did not advance a theory as to why an online community site should be held to the same standard as an old-media print publication.

1 comment:

Peter Porcupine said...

Thank you for blogging about this! It's an important issue!

Bloggers are NOT considered 'reporters' under the new McCain-Finegold Act, and a blog can be considered a political contribution, and is supposed to be reported. Newspapers have a 'reporter exception' for their editorial statements.

Now - if we have to take the RESPONSIBILITY of conforming to newpaper standards, shouldn't we also get the PRIVILEDGES?