WASHINGTON--Expect a new push in Congress this fall for laws aimed at keeping sexual predators off the likes of MySpace.com and elevating fines on Internet service providers that don't report child pornography.
That was the message delivered on Friday--which could be the politicians' last day in session before their August recess--by a handful of U.S. House Democrats, including Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers (D-Mich.) and Democratic Caucus leader Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.).
As technology advances and opens up new ways for predators to get to children, "you have to adapt and help parents be good parents," Emanuel said at a sparsely attended press conference in the Capitol building. That means it's necessary to pass a "comprehensive piece of legislation," he added, to deal with the perceived problem of sexual predators luring children through social-networking sites.
Conyers, for his part, said his committee plans to hold hearings beginning in September that examine "the use of the Internet to perpetrate or facilitate sex crimes." To him, that means sexual predators "infiltrating" chat rooms and social-networking sites to arrange meetings with minors for both consensual and forcible sexual encounters, as well as people who spread illegal child pornography online. He said he plans to invite Internet service providers and representatives from social-networking sites to participate.
The renewed calls for action on Friday further negate any possibility that the push for legislation designed to rein in social-networking sites last year was just a fleeting preoccupation of a Republican-controlled Congress in the lead-up to critical elections.
Another related push surrounds data retention, which would have required Internet service providers to retain records about their subscribers for a certain period of time for law enforcement access. It also appears to be less of a priority this year, though a Senate bill proposed earlier on Friday calls for a working group to study the issue.
Focusing on three major efforts
On Friday, the Democrats focused their attention on three major efforts, though they suggested they're also open to considering other ideas as well.
The proposal that arguably garnered the most attention was a bill introduced by Rep. Earl Pomeroy (R-N.D.), known as the KIDS Act, which would require convicted sex offenders to supply their online identifiers, such as e-mail addresses and instant-messaging usernames, to a federal database that could then be accessed by social-networking sites. Although such sites would not be legally obligated to check their user base against the database, they would be encouraged to request a list of those names from the U.S. Department of Justice.
MySpace is an enthusiastic supporter of that bill.
The penalties for failing to comply would lie with the sex offenders, who could be fined or imprisoned for up to a decade if they fail to register their online aliases. The bill would also create a new crime, subjecting any adult to up to 20 years in prison for knowingly misrepresenting his or her age "to engage in criminal sexual conduct involving a minor, or to facilitate or attempt such conduct."
"No community is safe from the dangers posed by the Internet," said Pomeroy, who deemed his proposal, which currently has 62 co-sponsors, a "practical solution" to those perceived threats. Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) has sponsored the bill's counterpart in the Senate.
Another proposal, advocated by co-sponsor Rep. Nick Lampson (D-Texas) on Friday, would triple the penalties for Internet service providers that fail to report child pornography on their servers, heightening those penalties to up to $150,000 for the first offense and up to $300,000 for subsequent failures. The bill also would allow courts to order the use of "electronic monitoring technology" to track a convicted sex offender's Internet activities.
A similar version sponsored by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) is pending in the Senate. Unlike a draft version circulated in December, it does not appear to expand the reporting requirements to additional Web site operators.
Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) is also preparing to introduce a bill that attempts to raise the profile of Internet sex crimes against children within the Department of Justice, including additional funding and the setup of a new office dedicated to investigating online child exploitation. A similar bill has already been introduced in the Senate by Sens. Joe Biden (D-Del.) and Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.).
A spokesman for Wasserman Schultz said her version will likely be introduced sometime after the summer recess because the congresswoman first wants to line up a long list of supporters in an attempt to boost its chances for passage.
Perhaps in an effort not to be upstaged by their House colleagues, a handful of senators from both parties on Friday also introduced a new bill framed as an attempt at protecting children on the Internet. Like Lampson's effort, it would triple the penalties for failure to report child pornography and would establish a working group to explore "online safety and technology" practices.
In a similar vein, the Senate Commerce Committee on Thursday threw its support behind a bill called the , sponsored by Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.). That measure instructs federal regulators to consider making rules that encourage or require "advanced blocking technologies"--a "super V-chip," some observers have taken to calling it--capable of filtering "indecent and objectionable programming" in myriad platforms, ranging from TV sets to cable boxes to wireless devices.
"It's an uphill battle for parents trying to protect their kids from viewing inappropriate programming," Pryor said in a statement. "I believe there is a whole new generation of technology that can provide an additional layer of help for these parents."