Monday, December 18, 2006

Dubious ideas behind sex offender crackdown

The Washington Post

The following editorial appeared in Saturday's Washington Post:

Increasingly, candidates for state attorney general nationwide have been campaigning on promises to crack down on online sexual predators, and understandably so. Youth and children are particularly vulnerable in Internet chat rooms and social networking sites, where the cloak of anonymity and a naive presumption that cyberspace is populated by kindred spirits can lead to damaging encounters and sexual exploitation. That is the impetus behind a proposal by Virginia's attorney general, Republican Robert McDonnell, to require convicted sex offenders to register their e-mail addresses, instant-messaging handles and other online identities so they can be blocked from preying on youth online. McDonnell's proposal is anchored in a legitimate concern; unfortunately, it rests upon some dubious assumptions both about sex offenders and the likelihood of effective enforcement.

The Virginia proposal tracks a federal bill dealing with the same theme offered this month by Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Charles Schumer, D-N.Y. The idea, which other states may adopt, is to provide social networking sites the means necessary to screen known sex offenders. Already, has announced it would use Virginia's e-mail registry to stop convicted sex offenders from using the venue.

About a fifth of's users are under 18. But apart from anecdotal accounts, there is no evidence -- no studies, no statistics, nothing but inference -- to show that many of the loathsome predators who have victimized children and young people online are convicted sex offenders. Moreover, if a convicted child molester or rapist were intent on preying on unsuspecting innocents online, it would be easy to evade the proposed law by creating a new e-mail identity. Once a sexual predator decides that he is willing to risk prosecution and imprisonment for his crime, he is unlikely to balk over failing to register an e-mail address.

Every state has enacted a law requiring convicted sex offenders to register their whereabouts with authorities and in many cases prohibiting them from taking certain jobs (as coaches for youth teams, for instance) or from living close to schools. McDonnell argues that it is only logical to add cyber-addresses to the information that offenders must furnish to the authorities. Perhaps. But there is little reason to think that move will go very far beyond symbolism.


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