Friday, January 25, 2008

Beginning of the end for online predators?

MySpace® is in the news, having reached an agreement with at least 49 states and the District of Columbia attempting to prevent sexual predators from using the site as a cyber trap. MySpace has agreed to add several layers of protection and develop new technologies including ways to verify the age of users.

It’s a common tactic used by predators and deviants to create false identities to lure unsuspecting kids. That cool 16-year-old guy might actually be a 45-year-old weirdo with a long rap sheet, his true identity hidden by online anonymity.

Keeping kids safe online isn’t new. Back in 2000 President Clinton signed the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA). CIPA legislation was originally introduced by Sen. John McCain of Arizona. There was a Supreme Court challenge to the law made by the American Library Association (ALA), but the court upheld the law.

This is all great news. Who isn’t against protecting our kids from the worst of society, predators who will stop at nothing to exploit or even kill a child lured by a trap set on the Internet?
"The Internet can be a dangerous place for children and young adults, with sexual predators surfing social networking sites in search of potential victims and cyber bullies sending threatening and anonymous messages," said New Jersey state Attorney General Anne Milgram.

I learned a lot about all this while working with author and cybercrime expert Jayne Hitchcock on our new tutorial, Protect Yourself Online. The Internet is full of anonymous users who can post just about anything they want, regardless of the truth. Predators and just plain cyber bullies troll the Net for victims.

Texas psychologist Shari Julian was quoted in a Denver Post article, “Craigslist develops a dark side” that the Internet has created “an “artificial” sense of community among the hateful.” Julian said “When you have a venue for ventilating your rage, your belief in that rage is ratified.”

For proof look no further than the story of a 13-year-old Missouri girl who was the victim of what she thought was her new cyber boyfriend on MySpace. The posts eventually turned hateful and due to this she committed suicide. It turns out the posts were actually the work of her next-door neighbor, the mother of a former friend.

Legislation and enforcement are two very different things. Again, when you have a group like the ALA challenging such laws, it makes it that more difficult to protect our kids from anonymous predators.

A novel approach is being taken in the Missouri case. According to the Los Angeles Times, a federal grand jury is issuing subpoenas to look into the circumstances of the case. Prosecutors are considering charging the neighbor, Lori Drew, with fraud against MySpace for creating a false account.

Here’s the bottom line: It’s the line between constitutionally protected free speech and conduct that is illegal, immoral or untruthful.

A long time ago, prosecutors never did nail Al Capone on murder. They instead convicted him of tax evasion. It will be interesting to see if the tactics taken by Los Angeles authorities, making MySpace a victim, will actually work.

At best, there may be some minor punishment doled out but as Loyola Law School Professor Laurie Levenson said, “I doubt it’s really going to lead to the type of punishment people really want to see, which is the woman being held responsible for the girl’s death.”

It could set an important precedent and as with Capone, at least a measure of justice.

The announcements made by MySpace and laws like CIPA, are all tiny steps, which will be challenged by those who put the First Amendment above the safety of our kids. I really don’t think it has to come to choosing between the two.

Let’s not give up, especially when it comes to protecting kids from those who lurk on the Internet under a cloak of anonymity.
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John W. Scherer