Full Disclosure

California lawmakers consider legislation that would require convicted sex offenders to provide their e-mail addresses to law enforcement.

by / May 11, 2007

Newly introduced legislation could put California and MySpace on the same team, helping protect young Internet users from predators who seek them out.

According to the bill's provisions, California would require convicted sex offenders to divulge e-mail addresses and other Internet identities to law enforcement officials, along with the information sex offenders must already provide to law enforcement agencies.

MySpace would then screen the e-mail addresses so the offenders could not access the site, said Assemblymember Anthony Portantino, D-Pasadena, who, with and fellow Assemblymember Shirley Horton, R-Chula Vista, drafted the bill -- AB 841. 

Portantino said current law requires the state Department of Justice to collect personally identifying information from convicted sex offenders, including their home addresses, the make and model of their cars, their driver's license numbers and any other pertinent particularities, such as tattoos. Under AB 841, California's Department of Justice would also collect e-mail addresses and screen names used with instant-messaging programs from convicted sex offenders.

The legislation would also make it a crime for sex offenders to lie about their identities on their profiles. Portantino explained that under the bill's provisions it would be criminal act for a 50-year-old person to pose as a 15-year-old on the Net. Additionally convicted sex offenders would be bound by law to give their e-mail addresses.

"If they fail to give their e-mail address," he said, "then they would be breaking the conditions of the release. If they don't give their information, they're in violation. They suffer the consequences."

Breeding Ground
The increasing popularity of MySpace and other social-networking sites has made it easier for predators to access victims under the cover of the perceived safety net of anonymity on the Internet.

Grassroots attempts to thwart this type of online activity are becoming more common. Internet safety advocate Larry Magid created Safekids.com, SafeTeens.com and BlogSafety.com among other sites, to educate parents and children about using social-networking sites safely. Internet and privacy lawyer Parry Aftab launched WiredSafety for the same purposes. The passage of AB 841 would complement the work of these and other advocates who contend that requiring full electronic disclosure is a step in the right direction.

"We have technology available ... in this case, we're saying we have registered sex offenders who have to give the state of California their information, so let's collect their e-mail [addresses] as well," said Portantino, adding that social-networking sites have a responsibility to use the technology available to make their sites safer. "It's using simple technology to make the Internet safer."

A MySpace Move
MySpace invited assemblymembers to its facility to view screening of questionable material from its Web site, Portantino said. "During that discussion, they told us about efforts to make it safer and asked me if I would author the bill."

Portantino agreed, and introduced the legislation. The Assembly Judiciary Committee approved AB 841 near April's end. Next, the bill will head to the Assembly Appropriations Committee for consideration sometime in June, according to a spokesman in Portantino's office.

MySpace's involvement will contribute to the success of AB 841, Portantino said, adding that it's a good model of a public-private partnership to help keep the Internet safe. The idea originally came from MySpace officials, but the backing of law enforcement agencies is what'll make it possible, he said.

Concerning Privacy
The bill has received some backlash. Detractors say that providing people's Internet information to a private company is an invasion of personal freedoms. Others say the legislation wouldn't accomplish much since predators could just create new e-mail addresses and instant message names and use those instead.

The objections, though, shouldn't slow the bill down, Portantino predicted.

"We're always going to have folks worry about abusing personal rights and freedoms. We all give up certain rights and privileges," he said. "We have to take off our belts and shoes [at airports]. Public safety interest makes us give up particular freedoms for that effort. In this case, there will be those who have to give up the ability to go to a social-networking site."

Eliot Cole Contributing Writer