New Legislation Introduced to Senate

The School And Family Education (SAFE) about the Internet Act of 2009 has been introduced to the Senate. It’s purpose is to “promote Internet safety education and cybercrime prevention initiatives, and for other purposes.” From what I can tell by reading this Act, the education would take place primarily in the schools, but at no cost to the schools. This means seeking federal monies for grants, which means the Feds are going to have to see this as a priority.

One of the things I especially liked about the text of this bill were that they were interested in “peer-driven Internet safety education initiatives.” However, the word “evaluation” is nowhere to be found, which makes me nervous.

While I am not holding my breath on this one given the current economic times and other priorities, it is a first step towards recognizing the importance of online safety. It also may be the first time there has been a formal attempt on a national level to suggest that internet safety belongs in school instruction (Virginia has state legislation related to supporting online safety instruction).

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All but one: 49 states sign off on MySpace safety rules

MySpace and 49 U.S. state attorneys general agreed on some safety guidelines for protecting youths on the Internet. According to Reuters, measures include creating an e-mail registry that would allow parents to prevent their children from creating an online profile for the network and making the default profile setting for 16 and 17-year-olds “private” “so they can only be contacted by people they know, making it harder for sexual predators to find them.”

Texas was the only state to abstain (gee, I see a trend with that place….)

Although I appreciate the sincerity behind creating these guidelines, I still feel they aren’t taking us in the right direction — and potentially leave people with a false sense of security. Creating a registry to prevent a youth from creating an online profile? Wow, that’s a stumbling block. It’s so hard to get a new email account to bypass this hurdle. It might take 5 minutes out of a youth’s busy day! And it’s not like there aren’t other options. Only MySpace is a part of this deal. What about the other social networking sites? Or is MySpace the only trouble area in the eyes of the attorneys general?

And making the default setting for older teens “private”? I haven’t looked into this (not being 16 or 17 myself, thank goddess), but I am assuming the default can be changed by said youth if desired. Or, the oh-so-difficult process of lying about one’s age can overcome anything that is perceived as a barrier. That is, if one wants to have a public profile. Many teens choose to keep things private. So, these aren’t the youth that will benefit from this change in regulations. They are already protecting themselves!

Virginia’s Youth Internet Safety Task Force Releases Report

Virginia’s Attorney General Bob McDonnell compiled a “rock star lineup” to investigate ways to protect Internet users and prosecute online criminals. The result, is a 100+ page report full of recommendations based on five meetings of three different groups — The Law Enforcement Working Group, The Parents/Educators Working Group, and The Technology Partners Working Group. Most of the changes suggested consist of strengthening laws regarding access to child pornography and toughening punishments for those caught soliciting minors online. A few pertain to creating educational materials for children and parents about how to be safe online (one of the suggestions is to create a fun video game to teach kids about internet safety — do these ever work?).

Overall, the report is filled with every message one would expect, with no additional surprises: The Internet is dangerous, we must find a way to stop predators, we must rise to the challenge to save our children. There are also several statistics quoted in the report: some are cited, some are not. One that is cited is the infamous “one in five children is sexually solicited online” from the UNH report of 2000; that number has decreased to 1 in 7 in 2005. One that has no reference, other than United States Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, is “There are as many as 50,000 predators online trolling for child sex victims at any given time.” I have no idea where that number came from or how it was derived.

Many people participated in the Task Force — judges, law makers, teachers, parents, even teens. But two groups not represented were psychologists and researchers. I wish they were invited to the table to provide a better balance of voice. I think this is a topic worth addressing, but it should be investigated not only with policy in mind, but also a true understanding of what is going on. So little is known about cyberspace when it comes to sex and even less is known about the active role children are playing in it. The fact that the Task Force did not invite people who may have insight into this aspect of the problem either shows that those in charge are completely unaware of this aspect of the issue or are trying to deny it.

Megan’s Law goes virtual

According to several news sources, including MSNBC, Virginia Attorney General Bob McDonnell has proposed a bill that would require sex offenders to not only register their physical address with the state, but also their “online identities.” In other words, when sex offenders have to register in accordance with Megan’s Law, they will have to disclose their email addresses on IM screen names along with all their other personal information, which can include their place of work, make and model of car, and basic physical description.

While I appreciate legislative attempts to increase the safety of our youth, I believe that this is yet another misguided attempt that will not solve the problem of online predators (which, by the way, we really do not have a sense of how big a problem it actually is). I mean, how hard is it to establish new online identities? Heck, you can create several of them in the span of an hour. All a sex offender has to do is register one or two of them with the state, and then simply interact with youth using one of the other 20 they have kept to themselves.

I have a neighbor whose friend, “Steve,” pretty much lives with him. In fact, I thought the guy did officially live in this house, but it turns out he doesn’t — he just crashes there all the time. Steve is a registered sex offender, having had been convicted for a sexual encounters with a young boy. But when I go online to look up the names and pictures of the sex offenders in my neighborhood, Steve is not among them. Why? Because he dutifully registered in his official zip code of residence. Nevermind he is never there — he is always hanging around on our block — he is obeying the law perfectly. But if he ever does reoffend (I have no reason to believe he will or will not either way) he most likely will do so near me, where he spends most of his time.

Now translate this concept to cyberspace where it is infinitely easier to claim one identity (read: residence) as your real one and then use another one or two or more as you hang out in cyberspace. There are provisions in this bill against this scenario; “To guard against offenders registering one address but using another on MySpace, the penalty would be the same as it would be for not registering or for providing incorrect information, which could result in a misdemeanor or felony charge,” states the MSNBC coverage. But you know how it is. A misdemeanor in return for anonymity? Doesn’t sound like a bad trade off to me. That is, if you get caught.

Just ask Steve about that.