by David M. Reutter
After online social networking giant MySpace.com, under pressure, disclosed on July 24, 2007 that it had purged 29,000 sex offender profiles from its website, state Attorney Generals clamored for lists of those who had been removed while politicians began beating the drum of government regulation.
MySpace, a division of Fox Interactive Media Inc., which is owned by Rupert Murdoch's media conglomerate News Corp., has about 185 million registered users. In December 2006, the company hired Sentinel Tech Holding Corp. to build a database of the approximately 600,000 registered sex offenders in the United States. The database, and software to identify and remove sex offender profiles from the site, was launched in May 2007.
The information sought by the state Attorney Generals included the names, e-mail addresses and related information for MySpace members located in their states. Rather than automatically turn such information over to the authorities, MySpace initially required them to use legal processes such as subpoenas. The company has since caved in.
On January 14, 2008, MySpace and the Multi-State Working Group on Social Networking, which represents 49 states and the District of Columbia, released a joint statement on collaborative online safety efforts. MySpace has a vested interest in taking this issue seriously; the company has been sued by at least four families whose children were sexually abused by adults they met on its website.
Once the Attorney Generals obtained information about sex offender profiles removed from MySpace, they turned the data over to law enforcement authorities to see if there had been any improper use of the site, and to parole and probation authorities to determine if sex offenders had violated their terms of supervised release (such as restrictions on computer usage).
A large majority of persons removed from MySpace were not on parole or probation but remained on sex offender registration lists, according to early disclosures by state authorities. Convicted sex offenders not on probation or parole were not charged with a crime, because if they are not under correctional supervision it is not a criminal offense to have a profile on a social networking site like MySpace, Facebook, Tagged, Friendster or Bebo. That, however, may soon change.
At least 13 states have passed or are considering laws that would require sex offenders to register their e-mail addresses, instant message addresses or other online personal information with state authorities [see, e.g.: PLN, Sept. 2007, p.24].
Such laws impose criminal sanctions for failure to comply, felonies in some cases. In West Virginia, warrants were taken out against convicted sex offender Marvin Davis, who created a MySpace profile in November, 2007 and did not register his Internet and email accounts. Davis had been convicted of sexual assault 12 years ago.
Some legislation goes even further, such as a bill being considered by Minnesota lawmakers that would prohibit convicted sex offenders from creating accounts on MySpace or similar social networking sites, period. A proposed Kentucky law, H.B. 367, contains similar restrictions.
"Our laws need to change with the times," said MySpace chief security officer Hemanshu Nigam, who is lobbying for legislation on the national level. "We can no longer unwittingly provide an advantage to predators online."
While that may be true, some states are going to extremes, such as Indiana, which recently passed a bill that, among other things, requires sex offenders to install software on their computers which allows the police to monitor their Internet activities at any time. Under the belief that this violates the Fourth Amendment, one released sex offender, Steve Morris, represented by the Indiana chapter of the ACLU, filed suit against every sheriff and prosecutor in Indiana on April 3, 2008 seeking to block the law, which goes into effect on July 1, 2008. He is seeking a preliminary injunction. See: Doe v. Prosecutor, Marion County, USDC IN, Case No. 1:08-cv-00436-DFH-TAB.
For several years, U.S. Senator and Presidential candidate John McCain sponsored the Stop the Online Exploitation of Our Children Act, which would create a federal registry of "any e-mail address, instant message address, or other similar Internet identifier" used by sex offenders. Convicted sex offenders who fail to supply the requested information would be punishable by up to 10 years in prison.
Further, the bill would require social-networking sites to take "effective measures" to remove any web page that is "associated" with a sex offender. Because "social-networking" is not defined, it would seem to apply to any site that permits author profiles, public profiles and personal web pages.
All reasonable people believe that children should be protected from predators. Yet some think such broad legislation is unnecessary. "This constitutionally dubious proposal is being made apparently mostly based on fear or political considerations rather than on the facts," said Kevin Bankston, an attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Thus far, Sen. McCain's bill has not been passed by Congress.
From August 2004 to June 2006, the FBI's cyber-crime task force for central Ohio arrested at least 14 people in online sex stings where police posed as children. The average prison sentence for those offenders upon conviction was 47 months. Numerous local and state police agencies have set up their own cyber-crime units, with an emphasis on sex-related offenses.
Online sting operations have been popularized by TV shows like NBC's To Catch a Predator, which features video footage of alleged sex predators attempting to meet adult decoys who posed as children online.
"There doesn't have to be a victim," said Brenda Sheehan, director of the Ohio Internet Crimes against Children Task Force. "It's what is in the mind of the suspect." Such is the new concept of thought-crime.
However, the push for more laws will not prevent the sexual exploitation of children, considering that a large portion of child sex offenses are committed by family members, friends and close associates. Furthermore, sometimes even the sheep are dressed as wolves.
A Wimona County, Minnesota jailer, Nathan Miller Dobbelmann, landed in jail himself in August 2007 after a 15-year-old girl contacted police about her conversations with him online. The girl advised Dobbelmann, 25, that she was only 15 after he asked to have sex with her. He acknowledged her age and told her it was OK. He then sent the girl four pictures via e-mail that were "clearly pornographic in nature." Dobbelmann pleaded guilty on February 8, 2008; as part of a plea agreement, the charge was reduced to a misdemeanor and he will not serve time.
In January 2007, while working at Ohio?s Medina County Juvenile Detention Center, guards John Stone and Anthony Berrios set up a MySpace account. They used the site to talk to, among other people, a teenage girl held at the detention facility. Finding their conduct was "blatantly unethical" and "affected the integrity of the facility and former residents," Stone and Berrios were fired.
The following was included in a termination letter written by Missoula County, Montanta Sheriff Mike McMeekin: "Your documented pattern of activity more closely resembles that of a sexual predator than of a deputy sheriff dedicated to improve relations between law enforcement and the public." The letter was issued to Sgt. Ty Evenson in March 2007.
Evenson had set up a MySpace account with the stated intention of meeting "people interested in assisting law enforcement on a one-on-one basis." To facilitate that goal, using a department-issued laptop while parking his patrol car near a WiFi hot spot, Evenson contacted hundreds of women who identified themselves as strippers, prostitutes and porn stars. The one-on-one attention that Evenson sought included messages that were sexually suggestive and "occasionally in very sexually explicit language."
When comparing Everson's MySpace activities with 911 dispatch logs, it was discovered that he had delayed responding to disturbance calls for up to 10 minutes while remaining logged in at MySpace.
The hunt for online sex predators has even claimed the life of a Texas prosecutor. After Rockwall County chief felony assistant district attorney Louis "Bill" Conradt, Jr., 56, was busted for seeking sex with a purported 13-year-old boy as part of a To Catch a Predator sting, he killed himself on November 5, 2006 as police tried to serve an arrest warrant. Police officials admitted that Conradt had not gone to meet the decoy, but "they believed he would," according to an msnbc.com article.
The question is whether new laws are really needed or technical advancements such as those implemented by MySpace are sufficient to protect children online. Evidently, encouraging parents to more closely monitor or restrict their children's Internet activities has not been effective.
Sources: Associated Press, badcopnews.com, Nashau Telegraph, msnbc.com, news.com, mycrimespace.com
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Related legal case
Doe v. Prosecutor
|Marion County, USDC IN, 1:08-cv-00436-DFH-TAB