Sex Offenders to Feel Eyes of Big Brother Online
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Two U.S. senators, a Virginia Attorney General, a social networking site and an online identity verification company are all working to make it harder for sex offenders to hunt for (and prey on) victims online. But some of the moves they’re making may raise constitutional issues – and could, by implication, mean a lot more work for email providers and web hosts.
Let's start with the U.S. senators, even though their legislation won't be introduced until January 2007, at the start of the 110th Congress. Charles E. Schumer (D-NY) and former presidential candidate John McCain (R-AZ) stated their intention to introduce bi-partisan legislation that would require all registered sex offenders to submit their active email addresses to law enforcement. Note the plural there: they can't submit just one email address and be done with it; they must submit all of the addresses they are using.
If passed, the legislation would apply to all sex offenders on probation or parole. If an offender uses an unregistered email address or submits a fraudulent address, they would be violating the terms of their parole or probation, and could face a return to prison. In particular, so goes the thinking, if a sex offender submits a fraudulent email address, law enforcement officials would know that the predator was trying to avoid detection.
"Just like in our actual neighborhoods, sex offenders must make themselves known in our virtual neighborhoods as well," Schumer noted in his press release about the to-be-proposed legislation. "Millions of teenagers log on to websites like MySpace and they shouldn't have to worry about running into these predators online. Sex offenders have no business joining social networking communities - especially those with teenage users - and our legislation will keep them out. This first-of-its-kind law will represent a giant leap for Internet safety."
Potentially, it's a good start, but there are a number of worrying questions. There are issues both technical and constitutional to consider, and the fallout from some of these is bound to impact innocent parties - such as web hosts and email providers who happen to have a sex offender or two as customers. I will get to these later in this article.
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