Virginia Attorney General Bob McDonnell (R) wants to know the e-mail addresses of sexual predators. As part of his Youth Internet Safety Task Force, McDonnell hopes to see legislation which will force convicted sex offenders to register electronic identities with the state.
After Virginia collects the offender's e-mail address, IM screen names and other online names, the state plans to share the information with social networking site MySpace.com.
MySpace will then block access to its site to people with those electronic names.
If signed into law, this legislation could face a legal challenge, said Brian McNamara, a professor at George Mason University's School of Law. McNamara has been teaching classes on Internet law since 1999.
While he said courts have generally held that sex offender registries are legal, this may cross a different line. Under the current system people register, but are still permitted to live essentially wherever they want — with the exception of a prohibition of living near a school.
In this case, by refusing people access to MySpace, it may be found to have an additional punitive element, which could cross a legal boundary.
The text of the bill is not yet available, so McNamara could not give a detailed critique of the proposal.
"It's easy to say, 'we're going to be protecting children,' but the devil is in the details," he said.
McDonnell recognizes that this system is not fool-proof said spokesman Tucker Martin.
While this effort will be a partnership with MySpace, Martin said he hopes that other social networking sites will join. "The free market does tend to reward companies that provide a service people want," he said.
THERE IS PENDING federal legislation, which would have a similar effect, but most sex crimes are prosecuted at the state level, Martin said, so it can be useful to have state protections.
McDonnell recognizes that, by developing the registry at the state level, it will not prevent sexual predators who live in a neighboring state. "Every state needs to do it," Martin said.
MySpace officials agreed. Federal, state and local officials, in addition to parents and teachers need to vigilant in efforts to protect children. "All of them, everyone needs to work together," said Hemanshu Nigam, chief security officer at MySpace.
MySpace is discussing sharing its information with other companies, Nigam said.
McNamara says that another motivating factor in this legislation could be Internet sites trying to shield themselves from legal liability. If this proposal becomes law, it would mean that offenders are already committing a crime by not registering their address and then going on MySpace. In court, it could help Web sites in defending against claims that they didn't do enough.
"It gives them another defense," McNamara said.
In his statement announcing the proposal, McDonnell also recognized the relative ease with which someone can get a new e-mail address, a concern shared by MySpace.
Although it will be simple to evade the restriction, that should not stop government and the private sector from acting, Nigam said. "We see safety and security as something that has to be hit from every angle you can think of," he said.
In this case, Martin said, government is doing what it can to protect citizens, but ultimately it can only go so far. Personal responsibility is critical to protecting children from online predators, Martin said.
"At the end of the day, it's up to parents, educators and others on the front line to know what their children are doing," he said.
Teaching about Internet safety parallels the kinds of lessons that parents already teach their children, Nigam said. "In the physical world, you teach a teen, 'don't go into a certain part of town,' or 'look both ways when you cross the street,'" Nigam said.
ALL THE DETAILS of the bill are not yet available. It will likely be sponsored by Sen. Ryan McDougle (R-Hanover), Martin said.
For example, the bill does not yet specify if the e-mail addresses will be posted on the existing registry, along with the photos and street addresses, and that is something Martin said is under discussion. "You walk a fine line on this issue between protecting civil liberties and protecting public safety," he said.
In the case of sex offenders, the government prefers to err on the side of safety, Martin said.
The penalty for not registering will be equivalent to the penalty for entering a false physical address. For nonviolent offenders, that penalty is a Class 1 Misdemeanor for a first offense and Class 6 Felony for subsequent offenses.
For violent offenders, the penalty is a Class 6 Felony for a first offense and a Class 5 for subsequent offenses.
Martin said there are about 13,500 people on Virginia's registry. He said that it will be the state's responsibility to track compliance with the law.
He said that when state troopers go to verify an offender's physical address, they may also get permission to run a diagnostic on the person's computer to ensure that there are not extra electronic aliases.
A bill number has not yet been assigned to this legislation. The General Assembly convenes Jan. 10. The proposal would need to be approved by the House of Delegates and state Senate, and then signed by the governor before it could become law.