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KIDS Act: How Far is The Law's Online Reach?

The following is an excerpt from a chat transcript posted to Perverted-Justice.org. The full transcript led to the conviction of a sex offender.

fleet_captain_jaime_wolfe: You do know I am looking for a sex-slave, right?

sadlilgrrl : yes

fleet_captain_jaime_wolfe: Do you want to be that sex-slave?

sadlilgrrl: yes

fleet_captain_jaime_wolfe: Are you sure about that?

sadlilgrrl: yes. ill do anything to stop feeling so empty.

In the chat, sadlilgrrl is actually Del Harvey, Information First coordinator for Perverted Justice, an online organization that recruits volunteer contributors to pose as underage children in chat rooms. According to Perverted Justice, Fleet_captain_jaime_wolfe is a man named Paul Short.

There are child-safety advocates who insist that convicts like Short should not be forced to submit their e-mail addresses to the government.

The KIDS Act

This month, a bill goes before the House of Representative's Judiciary Committee that would require Short and all other convicted sex offenders to register any e-mail address, instant message address, or similar Internet identifier the sex offender used or will use to communicate over the Internet with the National Sex Offender Registry.

The bill is called the Keeping the Internet Devoid of Sexual Predators Act of 2007 or KIDS Act. Congressmen Earl Pomeroy (D-N.D.), Paul Gillmor (R-Ohio), Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.), Steve Chabot (R-Ohio) and Senators Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and John McCain (R-AZ) introduced the KIDS Act in January.

"Millions of teenagers log on to Web sites like MySpace and they, and their parents, shouldn't have to worry about running into these predators online," Senator Schumer said in a joint statement to announce the bill.

"We know that many predators are using the Internet to find victims. This legislation will take a big step toward keeping sexual predators out of the online neighborhoods our kids frequent, Schumer said at the time.

Social networks MySpace and Facebook support the act and say they would use it to block convicted sex offenders from using their sites.

But some, including academics and child-safety advocates, take issue with Schumer's claims, saying they misrepresent the issue. This group won't go so far as to say they are against the KIDS Act, but they do argue it doesn't solve any real problems.

Overlooking a problem?

David Finklehor, director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire, said characterizations such as Senator Schumer's are "based on anxieties and not on a careful analysis of the nature of the problem or the way in which kids get harmed."

Preventing convicted sex offenders from joining social networks through something like the KIDS Act might do some good but won't solve the problem. The notion that the main problem is social networking sites is "overdrawn."

"Our research suggests that kids who interact on those sites are not at any higher risk," Finklehor told InternetNews.com. "If kids are taking risks -- suggesting they're interested in sex, talking with people they don't know about sexual topics -- they can run into danger. But only in the same way that they could going to parties."

According to Finklehor's research, only 7 percent of arrests for statutory rape in 2000 were Internet-related. He says that most of those cases are what he calls "criminal seductions," where most of the victims are teenagers seduced by adults who did not try to conceal the fact that they were adults.

Only 5 percent of offenders concealed the fact they were adults from their victims. Eighty percent of the offenders were "quite" explicit about their sexual intentions, and, in half the cases, victims are described as being in love with the offender or feeling a close friendship.

"There's some sense that if you can zone [sex offenders] out of people's neighborhoods and social interaction spaces, somehow kids will be safe. That's a natural, crude, popular analysis. But it doesn't respond to what we know about the nature of child molestation."

Instead of passing laws like the KIDS Act, Finklehor wants lawmakers to treat online and offline child molestation as a public health issue to be dealt with scientifically.

He also wants the government to focus more on prevention education aimed at teenagers to persuade them to avoid engaging in relationships with adults online.

Next page: Political posturing?