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Social-networking ban for sex offenders: Bad call?

A just-signed Illinois law that bans registered sex offenders from social-networking sites might do more harm than good. Here's why.

Larry Magid
Larry Magid is a technology journalist and an Internet safety advocate. He's been writing and speaking about Internet safety since he wrote Internet safety guide "Child Safety on the Information Highway" in 1994. He is co-director of ConnectSafely.org, founder of SafeKids.com and SafeTeens.com, and a board member of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. Larry's technology analysis and commentary can be heard on CBS News and CBS affiliates, and read on CBSNews.com. He also writes a personal-tech column for the San Jose Mercury News. You can e-mail Larry.
Larry Magid
4 min read

The just-signed Illinois law banning sex offenders from social-networking sites might seem like a good idea to protect children, but it will have virtually no impact on their safety and could wind up making things worse.

The law, which was signed Thursday by Illinois Governor Pat Quinn, would prevent registered sex offenders in Illinois from using a social-networking service defined as an "Internet Web site containing profile Web pages...that include the names or nicknames of such members, photographs...or any other personal or personally identifying information."

The definition also includes "the ability to leave messages or comments on the profile Web page that are visible to all or some visitors to the profile Web page," which might be interpreted to include news sites, including CNET News, that allow visitors to register and leave comments.

But let's start with the problem the law is trying to solve. It's aimed at adults who troll the Web in search of children to sexually exploit. While such people do exist, they are rarely successful in harming youth whom they meet through the Internet. Every peer-reviewed study conducted by the Crimes Against Children Research Center and other scholarly organizations, as well as the report of Internet Safety Technical Task Force, has concluded that the risk of online predators is greatly exaggerated.

I'm not aware of any cases of a predator harming a prepubescent child whom he met on the Internet, and there are very few publicly known cases of sexual contact between a teenager and an adult they met online. In those few cases where contact has occurred, it is often because the teenager was aggressively seeking the contact and where the teen was also engaged in offline risky behavior. These cases are typically between a teenage girl and young adult male between 18 and 25.

Law enforcement officials and politicians will point to plenty of Internet predator cases, but the overwhelming majority are either sting operations, in which no child was harmed, or child pornography cases which, while horrendous, are not addressed by this law.

A January 2009 analysis of Pennsylvania cases by the Center for Safe and Responsible Internet Use found, during a four-year period, that "only eight incidents involved actual teen victims with whom the Internet was used to form a relationship," compared to 9,934 children who were sexually abused in a single year in that state.

If the law had no negative consequences, I would give it a pass. After all, who cares about the rights of people who have been convicted of sex offenses? Well, I do. Not because I think they're wonderful people but because it's in all of our interest that, if they're not in prison, they be integrated into society to the extent that they can function and be able to find and hold appropriate jobs. Keeping these individuals away from the very types of sites that can help them in their careers is counterproductive to the goal of rehabilitating them.

The other issue is how we classify sex offenders. Not everyone on every state sex offender list is a danger to children. A recent article in The Economist, entitled "Unjust and Ineffective, observes that "Many people assume that anyone listed on a sex offender registry must be a rapist or a child molester. But most states spread the net much more widely."

Citing a report from Human Rights Watch, the article says "at least five states required men to register if they were caught visiting prostitutes. At least 13 required it for urinating in public (in two of those states, only if a child was present). No fewer than 29 states required registration for teenagers who had consensual sex with another teenager. And 32 states registered flashers and streakers."

The article describes the plight of a young woman who, in 1996 at age 17, was charged with having oral sex with a 16-year-old boy. She was given jail time and probation, and wound up on a sex offender list. Should she be banned from having a Facebook account or the ability to publicly comment on posts like this one? I think not.

I'll leave it up to others to debate our sex offender registry policy. Adam Thierer and Robin Sax have just written thoughtful responses to The Economist's article, taking differing points of view, but I do think that we need to be careful about not indiscriminately shutting down social-networking access to all registered sex offenders. Some probably yes, but not every one of them.

Another reason to question this law is that it can lead to more than one false sense of security. To begin with, the most dangerous sex offenders aren't necessarily the ones who are registered but the many who haven't yet been caught and convicted. And if we focus exclusively on predation, we're likely to lose track of the most dangerous aspects of youth online behavior, which are mostly either kid on kid--such as bullying, harassment, and impersonation--or self-imposed risks such as sexting or posting information that could be embarrassing later in life.

CBSNews.com's Declan McCullagh has also weighed in on this case.