29 Dec Craigslist exec strives to keep the Internet neutral
Jim Buckmaster would not appear to have too many worries right now. As the CEO of Craigslist, the network of online communities that dominates classified advertising, he leads a company that continues to extend its service worldwide. And since the dismissal of a housing discrimination lawsuit filed against Craigslist in Chicago, the organization could have one less controversy to deal with.
But Buckmaster, who is given much of the credit for designing the company’s multi-city architecture and self-posting process, does have at least one concern as 2006 draws to a close, and that’s whether broadband providers will be permitted to change the Internet.
Craigslist offers free classified advertisements for jobs, housing, personals, and other categories, and popular discussion forums on just about any topic, but the organization also has been an outspoken proponent of “net neutrality,” the proposition that the Internet should continue to be designed in a way that treats all content, sites, and platforms equally. In essence, proponents of net neutrality would like to ensure that all Internet traffic is treated the same, no matter what its source or destination.
Internet access providers have been seeking legislative authority to charge new fees to provide certain Web content with priority access when routing it across the Internet, a practice that net neutrality advocates say would create a two-tier Internet and price small online firms and consumers out of the premium market.
While some view their concerns as speculative, their main worry is that a handful of large phone and cable companies that provide high-speed Internet access would become gatekeepers of Internet content. Broadband providers claim they have no plans to block competing Web content, and they note that they have every economic incentive not to anger their customer base with substandard Internet service.
A presumably more net-neutral Congress has been elected, but Buckmaster, who worries about the competitive impacts of altering the Internet, knows that certain broadband providers still can throw large amounts of money at members of Congress.
“I guess I would say I’m cautiously optimistic that lawmakers will do the right thing, although it seems in a lot of cases that these things get decided according to who puts forward the most lobbying and the most campaign contributions,” he said. “Since the phone companies have played this game for decades, they certainly have an advantage there.”
Craigslist, whose site content is largely user-driven, knows all about advantages. The company’s chief source of revenue remains charging businesses below-market rates for job ads in several major cities, and for broker apartment listings in New York City. That has enabled it to offer free ads in cities like Milwaukee and Madison, and Buckmaster expects that to continue.
He believes this revenue model is sustainable in the near term, but would not predict its viability five or 10 years out. One thing he can forecast is that Craigslist, with just 23 employees, will continue to be governed largely by its users. They have shaped the company’s decision to add cities and classified ad categories, and to alter the website’s functionality with features like image upload and other incremental improvements.
Buckmaster said it’s easier to point out things that are not user-driven, and he views their sense of ownership as Craigslist’s most sustainable competitive advantage. Prior to its latest additions, which brought the number of cities served to about 450 worldwide, Alexa.com reported that Craigslist had more than five billion page views per month, placing it in 31st place overall among websites worldwide and in eighth place among websites in the United States. Craigslist, named for founder Craig Newmark, receives more than 12 million new classified ads each month, including 750,000 new job listings, making it one of the world’s top job boards.
The company has been cited as a lesson, particularly in the newspaper industry, of what happens when companies are slow to incorporate Internet technology. David Carlson, president of the Society of Professional Journalists and director of the University of Florida’s Interactive Media Lab, said during a March 2006 visit to Milwaukee that newspapers have ceded too much advertising territory to the likes of eBay and Craigslist.
Seven newspaper groups recently agreed to work with Yahoo! to share online advertising, but whether they will attempt to reclaim classified ad ground from Craigslist remains to be seen.
That’s where the sense of ownership and direction among Craigslist users becomes such a competitive advantage.
“For a variety of reasons, most companies, and that includes most Internet companies, aren’t really able to put users first because they, for instance, have to bow to shareholder demands because they are publicly traded,” Buckmaster noted. “So I do think that’s an advantage to be able to respond first and foremost to user wants and needs.”
That’s not to say the site hasn’t generated controversy on issues ranging from the erotic content of some classifieds to the competitive threat it poses to alternative newspapers, which rely on classified advertising as a key revenue stream. One of the newer uproars involves self-published classified ads that are construed as a violation of the Fair Housing Act by the Chicago Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights. The committee contends that the ads, which pertain to housing, are discriminatory on the basis of race, sex, national origin, religion, color, and familial status.
The ads prompted a lawsuit that recently was dismissed in U.S. District Court in Chicago, which ruled that the Communications Decency Act provides limited immunity to electronic publishers for content written by another party. The lawyer’s committee, which does not believe the Communications Decency Act immunizes online publishers from Fair Housing Act claims, has filed a motion asking Judge Amy St. Eve to reconsider and has indicated it would appeal if the motion is not granted.
While the committee views the matter through the lens of housing discrimination, Buckmaster believes it could impact the ability of consumers to publish online content. “I think the general public has benefited greatly from the ability in recent years to self-publish, largely for free, on the Internet,” Buckmaster said. “And that would certainly be severely constrained if it were found that online service providers were responsible for the contents of each self-published message left by an end-user.”
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