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Virginia Proposal Aims to Keep Sex Offenders Off Networking Sites

By Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 12, 2006

RICHMOND, Dec. 11 -- Virginia Attorney General Robert F. McDonnell (R) said Monday that he will push for legislation requiring sex offenders to register their e-mail addresses and instant messaging screen names so they can be blocked from using popular online networking sites.

If it is approved by the General Assembly, McDonnell said, Virginia would become the first state to forge a partnership with MySpace.com to try to prevent sexual offenders from using the site. MySpace, popular with teenagers, hosts 135 million profiles and allows users to link up with old and new friends, many of whom have never met in person.

"In the physical world, we know where sexual offenders live. We know how to keep our kids away," said Hemanshu Nigam, chief security officer for MySpace.com. "In the online world, we really need to step into the same direction to find out where these [predators] are online."

Already, the 13,500 residents listed in the state's Sexual Offender Registry are required to enter their home and work addresses and fingerprints into a public database. But McDonnell's proposal, which mirrors federal legislation unveiled on Capitol Hill last week, represents a significant broadening of efforts to monitor convicted sexual offenders' use of the Internet.

"This is a major step forward to keep these predators off the Internet," McDonnell said. "We want to be a leader with legislation to protect kids."

Here's how the plan would work: After the state obtained a predator's e-mail addresses, officials would turn them over to MySpace. The company, using new software, would then block anyone using that e-mail address from entering the site.

Last week, Sens. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) announced that they will seek federal legislation next year that would require all sex offenders to submit their e-mail addresses to law enforcement. That information would also be turned over to MySpace.

"Just like in our actual neighborhoods, sex offenders must make themselves known in our virtual neighborhoods as well," Schumer said in a statement.

Although the details of McDonnell's legislation need to be worked out, he said offenders who do not comply could have their probation or parole revoked or face another felony charge of evading reporting requirements.

Laura Ahearn, executive director of Parents for Megan's Law, which advocates for reporting requirements, applauded the concept but questioned how it would be enforced.

"It would be effective for those offenders who have registered that e-mail address. But it is easy to change your e-mail address. You can change your e-mail address in 30 seconds," Ahearn said.

Instead of merely blocking offenders, Ahearn said she would like to see a system in which e-mail addresses are also used to monitor what Web sites offenders visit.

In Virginia, offenders have to register for 10 years or the rest of their lives, depending on the crime.

Last year, the General Assembly passed bills to toughen the punishment and monitoring of sexual offenders, including prohibiting sexual offenders from living within 500 feet of a school or day-care center. But some civil liberty advocates said the state went too far.

One measure, which took effect July 1, requires Virginia's public and private colleges and universities to submit the names and Social Security numbers of tens of thousands of students to the state police for cross-checking against sexual offender registries.

Some civil libertarians have challenged the constitutionality of such registries. But McDonnell, who hopes other Web sites popular with children and young adults follow MySpace's lead, dismissed such suggestions Monday.

"We are certainly going to put public safety ahead of these civil liberties concerns," said McDonnell, who pointed to studies that show a high recidivism rate among sex offenders.

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