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Thursday, February 9, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Craigslist accused of running biased ads

Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO — A Chicago fair-housing group has sued groundbreaking Web site craigslist for allegedly publishing discriminatory advertisements, a case that could test the legal liabilities of online ad venues.

The federal suit is part of an emerging attempt by housing watchdogs nationally to hold online classified sites to the same strict standards as the publishers of print classifieds, such as newspapers.

The case is potentially significant because it suggests the rules for an Internet site should be the same as a traditional publisher, in which every ad should be vetted to conform with the law. But that notion contradicts the way the Internet has blossomed, where informal communities tend to police themselves and free expression is valued.

The Chicago Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law sued San Francisco-based craigslist, claiming that during a six-month period beginning in July, the site ran more than 100 ads in Chicago that violated the federal Fair Housing Act.

The committee, a public-interest consortium of Chicago's leading law firms, said those ads discriminated on race, religion, sex, family status or national origin.

Among the ads cited in the suit: "Non-women of Color NEED NOT APPLY"; "African Americans and Arabians tend to clash with me so that won't work out"; and "Requirements: Clean Godly Christian Male."

The company acknowledges that completely screening its vast classified listings — which range from babysitters seeking work to people selling tickets to White Sox games — would be "physically impossible," craigslist Chief Executive Jim Buckmaster said in an e-mail interview Tuesday.

The site doesn't pre-screen or approve ads, he said, and 8 million new classified ads are submitted each month.

The company does have a system in which users can flag inappropriate or illegal ads for removal, which the company does, Buckmaster said.

The site, founded 10 years ago by computer programmer Craig Newmark, is remaking the classified-ad business.

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Once a listing of services for San Francisco residents, craigslist now covers the nation and has helped erode the print-classifieds business at newspapers. It charges employers for help-wanted listings in three cities: San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York. But the rest of its ads are free.

The privately held company, which has 19 employees, does not disclose revenues, and estimates vary. But one 2004 study in San Francisco said the Web site has cost Bay Area newspapers $50 million to $65 million in revenues for employment ads.

Buckmaster said the site is "very concerned about discrimination in housing ads." Voluntary efforts to promote fair housing on the site go "well beyond" what's required by federal law, he noted.

He said fair-housing groups have praised craigslist for educating users about fair-housing issues.

But Buckmaster also wrote it is "our understanding that Internet Web sites such as a craigslist do not have the same legal liability as print media in terms of the Fair Housing Act."

The company is not a publisher in the same sense of a newspaper, he wrote. "Rather, it is an Internet site where users can publish their own postings."

Therein lies the key legal issue: Is an Internet site like craigslist a publisher?

The answer is "less than clear," said Michael Overing, an attorney specializing in Internet law.

Publishers exercise control over their content, whether it is advertising or news columns. They screen ads and stories, looking for violations of laws like the federal housing-discrimination statute.

Overing said Web sites like craigslist can argue they don't need to screen because a federal law passed in the 1990s doesn't treat them as publishers but merely as distributors of content.

"Online, we are in a different realm," he said.

The Chicago lawyers' committee is essentially arguing that Internet sites do have the same liabilities as print publishers.

If the case goes to trial and the committee prevails, it could have "wide-ranging implications," Overing said.

It is not clear if the suit, which was filed Friday, is the first of its kind.

The Chicago lawyers' committee said it believes craigslist has been sued on fair-housing issues and has settled those cases. Committee spokeswoman Laurie Wardell said settlement talks with craigslist failed.

Buckmaster said craigslist hasn't been sued for such issues.

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