WASHINGTON – Legislation that would let social networking Web sites screen for sex offenders has elicited concern from critics who say it's unfair and won't work.
The bill's proponents say it would provide a tool to track and prosecute sexual predators. Its critics argue it wouldn't do enough to protect children and would result in curtailed civil liberties and unnecessary humiliation for the least-dangerous offenders.
The legislation,introduced in the House and Senate last week,would require sex offenders to register their e-mail and instant message addresses with the government. The Justice Department would make the information available to social networking sites.
MySpace.com,one of the largest of these social sites,said it will block membership for convicted sex offenders. Two other social sites,Facebook and Friendster,said they would follow suit.
The bill would also make it a crime for anyone over 18 to misrepresent his or her age with the intent to use the Internet to engage in criminal sexual conduct with a minor – an offense punishable by up to 20 years in prison,said Rep. Anthony Weiner,D-N.Y.,who co-sponsored the House bill.
“Sexual predators have no business joining social networking communities,especially those used by teenagers,” said Sen. Charles E. Schumer,D-N.Y.,who introduced the Senate version of the bill with Sen. John McCain,R-Ariz.
Rep. Earl Pomeroy,D-N.D.,said he expects the bill to “enjoy broad support” from Congress as well as from the online networks. He also co-sponsored the House version with Reps. Paul E. Gillmor and Steve Chabot,both Ohio Republicans.
“Minors want to talk with other minors,” Pomeroy said. “They don't want these predator creeps coming in and wrecking everything for everybody.”
Convicted sex offenders are now required to register their online information before leaving prison,and law enforcement officers can monitor their online activity while they're on parole. But parole officers aren't required to share the information,and ex-offenders aren't required to register new e-mail addresses.
The bill wouldn't prevent a sex offender from “lying about their age and sneaking around,” Weiner said,but it would provide another tool to track down sexual predators and another penalty to pin on them.
The proposal may not be effective or even fair,said David Kairys,a Temple University law professor and nationally recognized civil rights attorney.
Kairys said there is little distinction in the sex offender registry between dangerous sexual predators and “the usual young men's testosterone run amuck,” citing a case in which a 17-year-old boy was sentenced to 10 years for having oral sex with a 15-year-old schoolmate.
The legislation will harm these “nerdy offenders” who self-report,he said,and it won't stop “the real offenders,the ones who are the most devious and the most dangerous.” He called the legislation “a scarlet letter.”
Kairys also warned about the government “compiling lists of bad people and preventing them,with the cooperation of private individuals,of using certain things.”
“What about murderers?” he said. “Why just the Internet? What about the supermarket?”
He pointed to communist blacklists and Japanese-American concentration camps during World War II. Circumstances are different in the case of convicted sexual offenders,he said,but the mentality is the same.
“Sometimes the person the mob is after is a bad person,but do you want to be a mob?” he said.
Sam McQuade,a cyber-crime expert at the Rochester Institute of Technology,said the legislation doesn't completely address the problem because many child predators are juveniles themselves.
“Many sex crimes are committed by young persons,and sex-related high-tech crimes are only one aspect of a much larger problem,” McQuade said,citing identity theft,cyber-bullying,fraud,Web vandalism,piracy and academic cheating.
McQuade,who works with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children,said public education and parental monitoring are the best tools against online abuse. He said schools should teach Internet safety and parents should monitor their children's activity by keeping the computer in a central location,talking about their kids' online worlds and perhaps turning to filtering software.
MySpace announced last month it has been developing software that would provide parents with minimal information about their children's profiles and an optional tool that would prevent minors from being contacted by adults. The company announced in December a 24-hour security team to cross-reference users' profile pictures,age,weight and locations against state databases of registered sex offenders.
MySpace has also said it will distribute Amber alerts to notify members of missing children and has donated a database of sex offenders to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
MySpace Chief Security Officer Hemanshu Nigam,who worked with lawmakers to draft the legislation,said MySpace wanted “no convicted offenders on our site,period” because the site was committed to making the Internet “a safer and better-lit neighborhood.”
MySpace's recent efforts to improve safety come after a string of incidents in which it has been criticized for not adequately protecting children against sexual predators.
Four families,alleging their minor daughters were solicited online and then abused by adult MySpace users,sued MySpace and its parents company NewsCorp. last month. The lawsuit alleges that five teenagers,from Pennsylvania,Texas,New York and South Carolina were lured by MySpace users to meetings where they were drugged,kidnapped or sexually assaulted.
MySpace won't comment because litigation is pending,spokeswoman Dani Dudeck said.
Attorney Adam Loewy of Barry & Loewy LLP,one of the firms representing the four families,said the new legislation is not enough,but “it's a step in the right direction.”
Had the proposed safety measures been in place a year ago,”it would have increased the likelihood that these sexual assaults would not have occurred,” Loewy said.
Loewy said he supports the coalition of attorneys general headed by Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut,who called the sex offender registry legislation a “false security blanket.”
The group demands that MySpace raise its minimum age from 14 to 16 and verify the ages of its adult users – a step that social networking sites are “balking at” because it may affect their bottom line,said Greg Hall,a professor of cyber psychology at Bentley College near Boston.
“It's very easy for children to get around the age verification,” Hall said. “It's simply a check-off box.”
Hall,an expert on social networking sites and their impact on children,said the new legislation “targets a small population of potential abusers of children,” and that many adults who stalk and abuse children are not on the National Sex Offender Registry.
“MySpace and other social networking sites have realized that they've got to take some steps,” he said. “Otherwise attorneys general are going to be more aggressive in their pursuit of governmental control.”