In Washington, a Net protector or predator?

Mark Foley, who resigned from Congress over sex-chat allegations, touted himself as its leading defender of children on the Net.

Declan McCullagh Former Senior Writer
Declan McCullagh is the chief political correspondent for CNET. You can e-mail him or follow him on Twitter as declanm. Declan previously was a reporter for Time and the Washington bureau chief for Wired and wrote the Taking Liberties section and Other People's Money column for CBS News' Web site.
Declan McCullagh
6 min read
Mark Foley, who abruptly resigned from the U.S. House of Representatives last week after disclosures of inappropriate conversations with a teenage page, had spent years positioning himself as Congress' leading defender of children on the Internet.

Foley, a Republican who represented the area near Palm Beach, Fla., had spearheaded a legislative crackdown on Internet sites that post provocative photographs of teenage and preteen youth. He had pushed to open FBI databases to track sex offenders. He tried to force sexually explicit Web sites to label themselves accordingly.

Those public stances, coupled with Foley's strident denunciations of adults who prey on America's youth, further fueled the political hurricane surrounding his resignation just five weeks before the November elections. They also pose the troubling question of how a self-proclaimed Internet decency defender--if the leaked e-mail and chat transcripts are accurate--could be the very sort of person he claimed to despise.

The transcripts appear to show how Foley, 52, engaged in sexually explicit discussions with minors. One exchange posted by ABC News on its Web site on Monday describes how Maf54, Foley's screen name, set up a rendezvous with a teenage boy in San Diego and was planning another in Washington, D.C.

"It's very classic what you would call 'grooming behavior' on the part of an adult toward a juvenile," said David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire.

Finkelhor described the exchange as part of an "effort to be interested in the kid, to identify with what the kid's doing and be a pal and be real friendly...There's an effort to kind of push the boundaries, keep moving the boundaries closer and closer to the explicit."

The allegations of Foley's clandestine flirtations have prompted House Republicans to distance themselves from him, as well as defend themselves from accusations that they knew about the ex-congressman's proclivities for at least six months and did nothing about it.

"The page program is an important part of this institution," Speaker of the House J. Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., told reporters on Monday. "It has inspired many generations to enter public service. It is a trust, and as a parent and as the speaker of the House, I am disgusted that Congressman Foley broke that trust."

However, House Democrats are asserting that the Republican leadership had bottled up earlier complaints about Foley's unwanted attentions toward pages and had not brought them to the attention of the full House Page Board.

"Speaker Hastert's announcement this afternoon is yet another example of the House Republican leadership being more concerned with finding political cover for themselves than with the safety and well-being of the House pages," said Michigan Rep. Dale Kildee, the Democrats' representative on the House Page Board.

In a sign that the scandal is eroding support for House Republicans among influential conservatives, The Washington Times on Tuesday published an editorial that called on Hastert to resign.

"Hastert has forfeited the confidence of the public and his party, and he cannot preside over the necessary coming investigation, an investigation that must examine his own inept performance," the editorial said.

Also on Monday, the liberal-leaning Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, or CREW, said that in July it had turned over to the FBI disturbing messages apparently from Foley with no response the agency. The FBI said that it is investigating the matter.

Five attempts at Net crackdowns
Perhaps more than any other politician since Sen. James Exon, the Nebraska Democrat who drafted the 1996 Communications Decency Act, Foley focused on parents' worries about children and the Internet.

Foley, who was co-chairman of the House's Missing and Exploited Children's Caucus, was the lead sponsor for at least five bills in 2005 and 2006 aimed at protecting minors. One, the Child Modeling Exploitation Prevention Act, would create a new federal felony punishable by up to 10 years in prison for anyone who exploits minors by using their image for purposes other than legitimate marketing. (According to the leaked chat transcripts, Foley actively solicited photographs from minors.)

Another Foley proposal, the Protecting Our Children from Violence Act, would require the FBI to open its databases to social service workers who could look up anyone who "is the subject of an investigation relating to an incident of abuse" of a minor.

Foley also sponsored two separate but overlapping measures designed to crack down on convicted sex offenders through a national database composed of their whereabouts and their DNA.

He was quick to applaud the Justice Department's launch of a Web site aimed at providing one-stop access to sex offender information in July 2005. "I urge every state to participate to ensure no predator has a safe haven in this country," Foley said in a statement, accessed at his now-defunct official site through Google's cache.

But Foley's most extensive protect-the-children measure was the Internet Stopping Adults Facilitating the Exploitation of Today's Youth Act, or SAFETY Act. It would slap executives of any Internet company that "knowingly engages in any conduct" that facilitates access to child pornography with up to 10 years in prison.

Another section of the bill would require that all sexually explicit Web sites be labeled. Endorsed by the U.S. Department of Justice, that bill has companion legislation that's wending its way through the Senate. Because it is attached to a bill to fund the federal government, it could become law by the end of the year.

An embarrassing e-mail trail
"Obviously perpetrators are not necessarily sleazy people with sleazy backgrounds. They can be priests, they can be police officers, they can be congressmen, they can be Homeland Security officials," said Larry Magid, founder of Safekids.com and a board member of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. "What you need to be suspicious of is not so much the person but the person's behavior...you can't be on the lookout for creepy people, but you can be on the lookout for creepy behavior."

Even the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, or NCMEC, had counted Foley as a close friend and ally--at least until a few days ago. NCMEC initially released a statement on Thursday saying: "Congressman Mark Foley's resignation is a loss to Florida and the nation. He has been a hard-working, dedicated and effective congressman."

But a day later, after more-sordid details became public, NCMEC revised that language to say that if Foley had "violated the law, he should be prosecuted." (NCMEC's original laudatory statement is available through Google's cache.)

With Foley's history of close attention to Internet regulation, his choice to allegedly make such detailed, explicit statements in e-mail and instant messages--which are easy to record and forward--seems inexplicable.

But Larry Rosen, who studies the psychology of technology at California State University at Dominguez Hills, said he's not surprised.

"What research has shown over and over and over again is that if you compare people interacting electronically or face to face, that there is much, much more that they will say electronically," Rosen said. It is "upwards of four to five times the amount of self-disclosure, even if you're in the next room electronically."

An unintended consequence of the Foley revelations could be less congressional enthusiasm for data retention legislation--which is expected to be introduced by next year and which likely would force Internet service providers to record logs of user activities for a year or two.

Marc Rotenberg, director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington, D.C., said that politicians may be newly squeamish about having their online activities recorded. Before enacting data retention legislation, the cell phones of members of Congress should be examined for salacious conversations, Rotenberg quipped.

Many documents with Foley's remarks about the Internet protecting children have been scrubbed from congressional Web sites. But a transcript of a June 2005 hearing remains.

Talking about adults who solicit minors for sex, Foley said: "It's about setting the bar so they realize that if they offend, that their life as they knew it will be terminated. No longer will they have freedoms."

CNET News.com's Anne Broache contributed to this report.