Old news, new solutions

Donna Rice Hughes, chairman and president of Enough Is Enough, argues for a law that would help law enforcement and social sites “keep predators at bay.”

by Donna Rice Hughes

 The Internet offers unlimited worldwide access to information and instant communication. This has been a boon for commerce, communication, and culture, but has opened up a new frontier for sexual predators to seek out our children. New online tools have fundamentally altered the way we and our children interact, but our laws have not kept pace with technology. As a result, convicted offenders – though forbidden from many offline activities such as going to playgrounds and schools – have been able to join online communities, where they have easy access to teens online.

A few Internet sites have started to take steps on their own. MySpace, for one, has partnered with Sentinel Tech to help create the first national database of convicted sex offenders – used to identify and remove more than 29,000 profiles from their site so far – an unsettling, but unsurprising figure.

Prior to developing this technology, predators roamed freely in online communities, and companies and cops did not have the ability or power to readily identify or track sex offenders.This is a welcome start, in just one community on the social Web, but it is not enough; under current laws, predators are required to register their physical addresses with police, but no such requirement exists with regards to their online addresses, except in some states. As a result, predators can legally change the email addresses they use to register on social-networking and other community sites, thereby hindering our ability to track and block them.

The KIDS (Keeping the Internet Devoid of Sexual Predators) Act of 2007 proffers a new solution that would give law enforcement and social-networking sites the tools to succeed in keeping predators off these sites, requiring the US’s estimated 600,000 convicted sex offenders to submit all of their email addresses to a first-ever national sex offender email registry. The Department of Justice would make this registry information available to social-networking sites, which could cross-check their new members against the registry and block or monitor them. This innovative bi-partisan legislation, proposed by Congressman Earl Pomeroy (D) of North Dakota, Paul Gillmor (R) of Ohio, Anthony Weiner (D) of New York, and Steve Chabot (R) of Ohio, along with Sens. Charles Schumer (D) of New York and John McCain (R) of Arizona, would make the Internet safer for our children by empowering Web sites to block sex offenders and would give law enforcement new weapons against those who misuse the Internet to look for victims.

Some civil libertarians may complain that compulsory email registration intrudes on sex offenders’ rights. Each and every convicted sex offender in the nation is already required to tell the government where they live in the offline world. It is hard to argue that the same rules should not apply in the digital space.

Some sex offenders will undoubtedly try to evade detection – there is no “silver bullet” when it comes to protecting our children from Internet predation – but we must not shy away from enacting important legislation just because certain offenders won’t comply. We face this same problem in the offline world, yet we still require sex offenders to tell the government where they live. As with offline address requirements, those who willfully disregard this online requirement will end up back in jail. Those who follow this requirement will stay within the law. In either event, our communities will be safer.

Despite this critical legislation and other recent measures to increase Internet safety, it is important to note that many pedophiles commit acts of sexual abuse for well over a decade before they are caught – if they are caught at all. Additionally, we must urge other social networks to utilize this sort of technology or develop new, innovative technologies to protect our children online.

Internet safety is a shared responsibility. Both the Congress and the Supreme Court have recognized that government has a compelling interest in protecting our nation’s children, and it is unreasonable to expect parents alone to protect children from online sexual predators.Parents are the first line of defense, but policymakers, educators, law enforcement, and the Internet industry must also play a crucial role to keep our children safe online. The KIDS Act of 2007, combined with industry-funded technology support is a perfect example of what can happen when groups develop new solutions to address old threats.

Donna Rice Hughes is chairman of Enough is Enough.

[Views expressed by guest commentators do not necessarily reflect those of ConnectSafely.org.]


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