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.