Newspapers haven’t been able to slow the rapid growth of Craigslist’s classified advertising, but regulators might have better luck. The ongoing battle to curb sex ads on Craigslist took a turn on Friday, with a new ad campaign protesting the company’s policies about adult advertising. That same night, a federal judge blocked Craigslist’s attempt to halt an investigation
into its “adult services” section.

If regulators have their way, this could cut into a third of Craigslist’s earnings.

Craigslist’s chief executive, Jim Buckmaster, writes that “scapegoating
advertising services is a very unfortunate misdirection of attention and
energy” from better ways to battle the problem of sex trafficking. 

But Craigslist’s unfettered classifieds have brought in millions of dollars in revenue over the last few years. They’ve also gutted newspaper classified sections. And attracted a large number of ads from sex workers and those looking to pay for sex.

Sex trafficking activists have been lobbying against the company’s practices regarding sex work for years, to no avail. Last year, the company closed its “erotic services” section, reopening a new section called “adult services,” with more oversight.

But many don’t think that was enough. The ad that ran in The Washington Post, partially paid for by Fair
Fund
, begins with a letter from a girl calling herself “MC”:

“Dear Craig, I was first forced into prostitution when I was 11 years old
by a 28-year-old man.

“All day, other girls and I sat with our laptops, posting
pictures and answering ads on Craigslist,” the letter continued.

 ”I am 17 now, and my childhood
memories aren’t of my family, going to middle school, or dancing at the
prom. They are of making my own arrangements on Craigslist to be sold
for sex, and answering as many ads as possible for fear of beatings and
ice water baths.”

Craigslist’s policy is that the company has stepped up oversight of this area. Explicit images and descriptions are no longer permitted, and ads in the new, monitored section cost $10 per listing. 

However, it is extremely hard to police the open ad platform of Craigslist. There are still ads for paid sexual services on the site, and many that appear to advertise underage prostitutes. CNN recently went on the site and found more than 7,000 sex
ads in a single day listed under “adult services.” Many also listed prices for “thinly veiled ‘services,'” charging between $50 for a half hour to $400 an hour.

CNN also notes that in 2008, Criagslist agreed to report any suspicious ads to the Center for Missing and Exploited Children, but fewer than 100 have been reported since that time.

Most ads on the site are free, but the adult services section of Craigslist will bring in about $36 million in revenue this
year, according to
the Advanced Interactive Media Group. That’s about a third of the company’s total revenue.

Craigslist already donates some of the proceeds from these ads to charity, but the growing tide of sentiment against the company could lead to regulation. Andrea Powell, head of Fair Fund, openly calls Craigslist “the Wal-Mart of
online sex trafficking.”

The openness of the Craigslist platform is a strong component of its success, but sex trafficking is an area where advocates are quick to call for regulation. And if Craigslist’s policies aren’t tightened sufficiently to apease critics, the site could stand a good chunk of revenue in the near future.