Guilt by Association

After initial resistance, MySpace has been releasing information on registered sex offenders it has identified and removed from the social-networking Web site to the Attorney Generals of eight states. According to The Washington Post, MySpace has removed about 7,000 profiles, of a total of about 180 million (You can see the effectiveness of this campaign here, in a quick survey that found that five of nine discovered members were still online and actively networking).

Unfortunately, one of those 7,000 profiles belonged to Jessica Davis, a 29-year-old University of Colorado senior. The Wired Blog Network has been following the story of a woman wrongly accused of being a sex offender and having her MySpace account removed from the site. Although MySpace has yet to acknowledge the error, Sentinel, the company that built the sex-offender database, has.

Needless to say this new policy has, to say the least, many limitations and gaps. Will it protect children? As my Magic 8-ball would say “outlook not good.”

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Debunking the Myths

On May 3, the Congressional Internet Caucus Advisory Committee held a briefing entitled Just the Facts about Online Youth Victimization: Researchers Present the Facts and Debunk Myths.

It’s about time.

David Finkelhor, Director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire, perhaps provided the most challenging counter example to media portrayals of online victimization. Using the real-life tale of “Jenna” (not her real name), he shows how the 13-year-old girl knew that her new “boyfriend” was 45 when they met online. Nevertheless, she willingly went to the motel room where he was staying and they had sex. When her assailant was apprehended, she didn’t want to press charges and stated that she was in love with the much older man.

Finkelhor says it is dangerous and misleading to have adults believe that online predators lie and physically force their victims to be with them. “These are not violent sex crimes. They are criminal seductions that take advantage of common teenage vulnerabilities. The offenders play on teens’ desires for romance, adventure, sexual information, understanding.”

In other words, this is an old story — troubled child from broken home is taken advantage of by someone who says he cares. Same tune, different instrument.

You can view, hear, or read the entire presentation online. Plus, the Committee provides access to excellent resources concerning online youth victimization and online youth habits

Caught in the Web

Eight states (Connecticut, Georgia, Idaho, Mississippi, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio and Pennsylvania) have requested that MySpace turn over the names and other information of any registered sex offenders that are currently using their site. Although, according to CNN, it is not clear as to whether MySpace is directly responding to this request, the largest social networking site did say it was removing known offenders from the site. According to the article MySpace announced in December that it was partnering with Sentinel Tech Holding Corp. to build a database with information on sex offenders in the United States.

Although efforts like these can’t hurt, after reading Caught in the Web: Inside the Police Hunt to Rescue Children from Online Predators by Julian Sher, I am skeptical as to how helpful these efforts will really be. Sher, in his reporting of the issue of online child pornography (as opposed to focusing on older persons who try to meet F2F with youth for sexual encounters), brings up to essential points that are often overlooked when policy makers attempt to address the issue of child sexual abuse facilitated by the Internet:

1. For the most part, law enforcement works locally and within a jurisdiction. The Internet knows no geographical bounds and doesn’t even stay within national borders. If society truly wants to stop online child sexual exploitation, it is going to have to embark on a serious international coordinated effort. Though Sher outlines steps that have been taken, showing that law enforcement has come along way in just a few years, there is nothing close to clear communication and/or a systematic procedure when dealing with this crime.

2. Child sexual abuse — even that which begins online — is still primarily perpetrated by family members or persons the child knows. Yes, strangers can abuse. But it is MUCH more likely that a child is going to be exploited by someone they know, and unfortunately trust.

Although sensationalistic at times (what True Crime book is not guilty of this tone?), Caught in the Web should probably be read — or at least skimmed — by anyone trying to “protect our children” from evil online predators. After digesting the information in this book, hopefully they will come away with an understanding of how the internet is a community to which the usual procedures of law enforcement cannot be applied — especially if you ignore who the primary offenders continue to be.