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States, Social Networks Try to Minimize Presence of Online Predators

February 04, 2009 04:16 PM
by Lindsey Chapman
Popular social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace are working to ensure that registered sexual offenders can’t set up online accounts.

MySpace Revelation

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MySpace has reported that during the past two years, 90,000 registered sex offenders have been kicked off its Web site.

“But where did all of those sex offenders go?” asks Erick Schonfeld of TechCrunch.

Some of them have likely moved to Facebook, which former New York City police officer John Cardillo called a “safe haven” for offenders. Cardillo is now CEO of Sentinel, a security company that helps social networking sites like MySpace identify potentially worrisome users of their site.

MySpace uses Sentinel SAFE software, a database of more than 700,000 registered sex offenders, to weed out offenders on its site. Cardillo took the 90,000 names removed from MySpace to search on Facebook, and found more than 8,000 potential sex offender matches “without much effort. My professional opinion is that the real number is 15 to 20 times that,” Cardillo stated.

North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper and Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal have spearheaded efforts to ensure social networking sites are safe for kids. In 2008, both Facebook and MySpace made agreements with the attorneys general in support of the project.
 
MySpace provided its sexual offender numbers through a subpoena. Facebook has been subpoenaed as well, but has not yet responded to the request, according to ABC News.

Facebook spokesman Barry Schnitt told ABC News, “We are glad to be able to report that we have not yet had to handle a case of a registered sex offender meeting a minor through Facebook. We are working hard to make sure it never happens.”

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Opinion: Internet dangers for kids

A recent report on Internet safety from a task force led by Harvard University indicated that young kids on the Web are “relatively safe from adults cruising online for sex with minors,” according to the Los Angeles Times. The report generally contradicts prior calls for action against online predators, and suggests that few children have been exposed to “unwanted advances” on the Web.

In cases where online problems do occur, the report claims that perpetrators are most likely someone the victim knows, like an upset friend. “It’s an important message for parents,” Katherine C. Cowan, communications director for the National Association of School Psychologists, told the Los Angeles Times. “Sure, there are crazy sexual predators out there. But the most common problem is kids being mean to each other, and 13-year-old girls posting naked pictures of themselves.”

The case of a 13-year-old who hanged herself after being bullied on MySpace is a well-documented example of a teen being bullied by someone they know. One of the people tormenting Megan Meier online was the mother of a childhood friend who lived just four houses down from the girl.

Related Topic: Consequences of Sex Offender Laws

Many states’ strict residency restrictions for convicted sex offenders have been criticized for increasing homelessness and raising the likelihood that they will reoffend. In 2006, California passed Proposition 83, increasing penalties for sex offenders and instituting stricter residency restrictions and monitoring for parolees. Since the law passed, the number of sex crime parolees registering as transient has increased from 88 to 1,056 as of June 2008—a jump of more than 800 percent. The restrictions have drawn criticism from police and parole officers, who now have a more difficult time tracking released sex offenders.

Meanwhile, sex offenders in Texas have started an organization advocating more lenient penalties for nonviolent and low-level offenders. Martin Ezell, a 42-year-old Austin, Texas, native, founded the group Texas Voices to represent low-level sex offenders who believe the conditions of their sentences are too harsh. Ezell, like many in the group, is listed on Texas’ sex offender registry, which alerts the community of his presence. The registry makes it difficult for sex offenders to find homes and jobs.

Reference: Sex offender registries, Internet security

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