By Kenneth Todd Ruiz -- Staff Writer
However far registered sex offenders must live from schools and playgrounds, they're still only a click away from potential victims on the Internet.
Whether the threat of child predators turning to virtual hangouts such as MySpace or Facebook for victims is phantom menace or epidemic, a series of well-publicized incidents during the past year has set the stage for conflict over online freedoms as the government's appetite grows to police and regulate cyberspace.
Already scrambling to get ahead of regulatory efforts with its own policing, MySpace announced Wednesday it had deleted thousands of convicted offenders' profiles from the site, while rebuffing demands made a day prior by eight state attorneys general to turn over results of its own search for predators among its roughly 175 million accounts.
To hand over personal user information in response to a letter - without court order or subpoena - would violate federal privacy laws, MySpace representatives contended. This week's skirmish comes at a time some legislators' pen fingers are twitching.
Those lawmakers believe it's time to extend real-world demands for convicted abusers to their virtual lives by collecting their online identities and allowing - or requiring - Internet hosts to ban them from their sites.
"Under Megan's Law, we're supposed to keep 49 pieces of information, but we don't collect their e-mail addresses," said Assemblyman Anthony Portantino, D-Pasadena.Portantino recently introduced a bill into the Assembly that would force sex offenders to register their e-mail addresses and other online identities and make it a crime to lie about one's age online for the purpose of being a child predator.
First Amendment and Internet-rights advocates say Portantino's bill shares the same flaws as a more aggressive piece of national legislation that sputtered soon after being introduced late last year by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.
Describing the proposed law as "unnecessary, ineffective and unconstitutional," staff lawyer Kevin Bankston of the Electronic Frontier Foundation said the media has overblown the actual threat posed by registered sex offenders, creating a "moral panic."
"The ability to speak anonymously is actually a First Amendment right," he said. "Registered sex offenders who are determined to offend again can simply not register their e-mails, or register one e-mail and go get a free e-mail account and use that anonymously."Despite the ability to circumvent the process, Portantino said it would give law enforcement another tool for prosecution. Yet only one in 10 people arrested for Internet-related sexual assaults had prior arrests for sexually offending minors, according to research by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
Law-enforcement efforts netted an estimated 1,000 arrests for Internet-related sexual assaults, according to the 2003 study by NCMEC. About 20 percent of those arrested were related or already acquainted with their victims.
Last year, a NCMEC survey found fewer minors were receiving unwanted sexual solicitations than five years earlier, despite the explosive rise in popularity of social-networking sites such as MySpace. Four percent of them, however, reported aggressive attempts to make offline contact.
Although Portantino's bill would make it a crime for offenders not to register their electronic identities, banning them would be left to the discretion of online hosts.
Screening out offenders collected in a national database would be mandatory under McCain's bill. MySpace representatives have said the site would embrace such legislation.
In December - the same month McCain's bill was introduced following widely publicized incidents of abuse - the company announced it had hired a security firm to cull sex offenders from its nearly 200 million profiles.
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