N.Y. lawmakers announce social-networking safety legislation

Industry titans Facebook and MySpace are on board with Attorney General Andrew Cuomo's newly proposed bill to keep sex offenders off social-media sites.

Caroline McCarthy Former Staff writer, CNET News
Caroline McCarthy, a CNET News staff writer, is a downtown Manhattanite happily addicted to social-media tools and restaurant blogs. Her pre-CNET resume includes interning at an IT security firm and brewing cappuccinos.
Caroline McCarthy
3 min read

Updated at 11:08 a.m. PST.

New York's lawmakers have introduced legislation to keep convicted sex offenders off the likes of Facebook and MySpace.

In a press conference on Tuesday, New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, State Sen. Joseph Bruno, and Assemblyman Sheldon Silver unveiled details of the Electronic Security and Targeting of Online Predators Act (E-Stop), a new bill to crack down on the presence of sex offenders on the Internet, specifically on sites where they could get in touch with minors. The legislation aims to restrict convicted sex offenders' Web use, banning them from social networks like Facebook and News Corp.'s MySpace.

Under E-Stop, registered sex offenders in New York would have to turn over online identity information, such as e-mail addresses and instant messaging screen names, to the state. Participating social-networking sites would have access to the registry so they could block access, a statement from Cuomo's office explained. In addition, sex offenders who previously had "used the Internet to commit their offense, victimized a minor or who have been determined to be a high risk for committing a new offense" would have their Internet usage restricted by the state's parole board. It would be a violation of parole for a convicted sex offender to change e-mail addresses without notifying authorities within five days.

New York has nearly 25,000 names in its sex offender registry. Cuomo's office has been extremely vocal about social-networking safety for minors, engaging in high-profile legal negotiations with Facebook last year.

Executives at Facebook and MySpace have expressed support for the proposed New York legislation. "We applaud Attorney General Cuomo's leadership, both on this legislation and on the development of precedent-setting social-networking safety principles in which MySpace and 50 state attorneys general recently joined," Hemanshu Nigam, MySpace's chief security officer, said in a statement.

Nigam was referring to the agreement earlier this month in which law enforcement authorities joined up with MySpace representatives to announce an extensive new safety plan. "This bill complements technology we've already put in place to remove registered sex offenders from our community and is a comprehensive approach to protecting Internet users from predators," Nigam continued.

Chris Kelly, Facebook's chief privacy officer, also released a statement: "The E-Stop Act will enhance Facebook's existing use of technology and social rules to build a safer and more trusted environment for its users," he said. "We applaud the leadership of Attorney General Cuomo, Majority Leader Bruno, and Speaker Silver in introducing such effective legislation in the effort to protect kids online."

In the press conference, New York law enforcement authorities expressed concerns bordering on sensationalism, name-checking the hit primetime TV show To Catch a Predator as evidence that children now face far more dangers than they did a generation ago, offline as well as online. But MySpace's Nigam attempted to buoy fears and suggested that the right legal and technological checks can make social-networking sites perfectly safe.

"We often talk about the virtual world of the Internet as separate and apart from everyday life," Nigam said at the press conference. "However, as our teens spend more and more time online this has become a difference without a distinction. Rather than treating the online and offline worlds differently, our goal has been and will continue to be to make our virtual neighborhoods as safe as our real ones."

Kelly, who talked up Facebook's promotion of "a real-name culture instead of a screen-name culture" as evidence of its commitment to safety, agreed that with legislation like E-Stop, social-networking sites will be safe for minors--and then, ideally, they may stop getting targeted as hotbeds of activity for sex offenders.

"We need assistance from govt to identify those individuals," Kelly said.