Monday, December 11, 2006

The MySpace sex-offender purge

What did he expect?

MySpace announced today it will begin searching its 100 million-plus user list for people listed in a national database of sex offenders. [...]

That leaves just one real disappointment in this announcement: How MySpace plans to use the data. With all that information at its disposal, and a "24-hour-a-day dedicated staff" using it, MySpace could seriously enhance its policing. Instead, the company is taking a sophisticated database and wielding it as a blunt instrument, simply banning everyone on the list from registering or keeping a MySpace account, regardless of who they are or what they did.

Frankly, I'm not sure I'm fond of the idea of a company "policing" but that's neither here nor there. Once Kevin did his screen-scrape the writing was on the wall. A panicked public sure as hell won't countenance nuance, even if he is right as rain:

This is bad because, obviously, banning sex offenders won't keep them off MySpace: it'll just give them a reason to lie about their name or location, even if they aren't up to no good. (My survey found hundreds of past offenders, many with old or minor convictions, whose profiles reflected a seemingly normal life.) Now sex offenders who want to stay on MySpace will all be using false information from the start.

MySpace is essentially refusing an opportunity to detect and imprison active repeat offenders, by moving the entire superset of ex-offenders into the shadows. Does the convicted pedophile have lots of teenagers on his friendslist? MySpace won't know, because he'll be under same veil of anonymity as the flashers and peeping toms.

We know there are some ex-sex offenders who attempt to recidivate from accounts opened under their real names. If you believe they will now stay off MySpace, then the company's policy is good for safety. But if you think they'll simply start spelling their name a little different or lying about their ZIP code, then MySpace has lost the chance to take them off the streets.

MySpace is taking the easy way out. It may be good PR to be able to say that you don't allow past sex offenders of any stripe on your website, but the company should keep its eye on the ball: the goal isn't to keep a former flasher from blogging about his cat, it's to keep current pedophiles from pursuing children. MySpace could tell the difference, if it wanted to. A smart policing effort would use the sex offender database as one of many data points in keeping the site safe. Sometimes zero-tolerance is really tolerance.

LATER: The Times reports on the development, "If registered sex offenders sign up but do not give their real names, physical attributes, locations or post their real picture, they could elude detection. Similarly, there is a chance that people who are not sex offenders might be flagged by the system."


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