New legislation in California aims to net predators

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (MCT) — New legislation could team California and MySpace, the nation’s largest state and the popular Internet portal, in an innovative, but controversial way to fight sex offenders who prowl chatrooms for child victims.

The proposal calls for California to require registered sex offenders to report their e-mail addresses and Internet identities to the state, which would make them available to MySpace and other social networks to block participation.

“It is not a divine right that someone who is a registered sex offender should have access to a chatroom of 15-year-olds,” said Assemblyman Anthony Portantino, a Democrat.

Portantino and Republican Assemblywoman Shirley Horton are pushing Assembly Bill 841 in conjunction with MySpace, a massive, virtual community that enables users to share profiles, photos and e-mail.

Opponents argue that the state should not distribute personal identifying information to a profit-making firm, and that AB 841 would infringe upon free-speech rights of many convicts who have not acted suspiciously.

The legislation also raises questions about whether the state would be contributing to a new form of punishment for the 88,000 sex offenders who have been freed from prison to resume private lives.

Former Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg, a Los Angeles Democrat, said the proposal could hurt many offenders who are turning their lives around or whose crimes involved a spouse or adult acquaintance, not a child or stranger.

“At some point, we have to separate the guilty from the less guilty from the innocent,” she said. “But we’re not willing to do that because there’s too much politics in this crime-and-punishment business.”

California Attorneys for Criminal Justice, representing defense lawyers, said AB 841 would accomplish little because predators easily could change their e-mail or instant message addresses after reporting them to authorities.

The public is best served by rehabilitating offenders and “demonizing them is truly counterproductive,” the group said in a written statement.

AB 841 is similar to proposed federal legislation and to new laws in Kentucky and Virginia.

“MySpace is committed to working with California authorities to create ways to remove these offenders from social networking sites and keep teens safe online,” Hemanshu Nigam, MySpace’s chief security officer, said in a written statement.

Horton said the legislation is timely because “online chatrooms or hangouts are exploding in popularity.” MySpace, for example, serves about 100 million visitors per month.

AB 841 would expand a current law that requires sex offenders to report their home addresses to police agencies. The new mandate would take effect in July 2010.

Offenders’ Internet identities would not be displayed on the state Megan’s Law Web site, but they would be accessible to MySpace or other such portals, perhaps for a fee.

Some registered sex offenders whose identities are excluded from the Megan’s Law site — for relatively minor sex offenses — would be included in the data provided to MySpace and others for screening users.

AB 841 also would create a new felony targeting adults who lie about their age online in an attempt to commit various sex crimes.

No statistics are readily available on the number of child sex crimes precipitated by Internet contact. Authorities say misbehavior is common.

“Dateline NBC” has broadcast numerous shows in which alleged pedophiles are lured into a sting after sexual conversation online.

Kevin Poulsen of, which reports on technology trends, wrote last October that he performed an automated search of MySpace that found 744 profiles of people listed on the federal sex offender registry — including 497 who had victimized children.

Parry Aftab, a New York attorney and author on cybercrime issues, said finding a potential victim on the Internet is like “shooting fish in a barrel.”

“You can find the kids who are more vulnerable, and therefore more likely to engage in these high-risk activities by reading what they’re posting on their profiles,” she said. “They’re easier to find.”

Harriet Salarno, president of Crime Victims United, applauded AB 841.

“Anything that can save a child from being lured by a child molester, we support,” she said. “Even if it helps just one child.”

Assemblyman Joel Anderson, a Republican and a member of the Assembly Public Safety Committee, said he is likely to support AB 841 despite his reservations about giving personal information to private firms.

“I think the vile nature of the crime allows for exceptions,” he said.

Portantino said AB 841 simply supplements existing efforts to keep predators away from kids, such as requiring adults to obtain permission before walking onto school playgrounds.

“I see it as common sense,” he said.

The state Attorney General’s Office has taken no position on AB 841.

Asked if the measure could be interpreted as an unfair form of punishment against sex offenders who have paid their debt to society, spokesman Gareth Lacy declined to speculate.

“Each additional restriction or requirement that is imposed on a sex offender, taken in the aggregate, could be unconstitutional,” he said. “That’s something to consider.”

The American Civil Liberties Union contends that requiring disclosure of Internet identities would violate the constitutional right to speak anonymously “regardless of the topic and regardless of the electronic forum.”

Local law enforcement agencies would be required to update records when offenders report a new e-mail address. No new funding is proposed.

Attorney John Myers, a child abuse specialist at McGeorge School of Law, said he doubts that AB 841 would be deemed unconstitutional but that it contributes to a “scarlet letter” mentality of branding sex offenders.

“The problem is, nobody really knows at this point what is effective and what isn’t effective,” Myers said. “It’s not a thoughtful process anymore. It’s a knee-jerk reaction that anything we can do is OK, because they’re sex offenders and they don’t deserve even basic human dignity.”

Aftab countered that AB 841 is significant because it could benefit prosecutors.

Rather than prove criminal intent when a sex offender acts suspiciously online, AB 841 would allow an arrest if the person had lied about age or failed to disclose an Internet identity, she said.

“It makes it easier to put them back in jail,” Aftab said.

Added Portantino: “If we don’t make this effort, shame on us.”