Sex Offenders Win Right To Online Anonymity

    January 17, 2013
    Chris Crum

A federal judge has blocked a California bill that would take away sex offenders’ ability to anonymously use email, social media, instant messaging and various other web sites and services. The bill, Proposition 35, was deemed by Judge Thelton Henderson, to be unconstitutional.

Should sex offenders have the right to use the Internet without disclosing their user names to authorities? Let us know what you think in the comments.

Here’s how the State of California summarizes the bill in question:

Increases prison sentences and fines for human trafficking convictions. Requires convicted human traffickers to register as sex offenders. Requires registered sex offenders to disclose Internet activities and identities. Fiscal Impact: Costs of a few million dollars annually to state and local governments for addressing human trafficking offenses. Potential increased annual fine revenue of a similar amount, dedicated primarily for human trafficking victims.

In November, the bill passed with 81% of the vote. The bill, however, was temporarily blocked as the ACLU (along with a couple of sex offenders) got involved and filed suit.

The ACLU said of the bill, “Proposition 35 increases criminal penalties for sex offenses and imposes new restrictions on registered sex offenders. For example, the measure requires that registrants provide online screen names and information about their Internet service providers to law enforcement – even if their convictions are very old and have nothing to do with the Internet or children. This provision essentially eliminates the ability of registrants to engage in anonymous online speech and imposes a substantial burden whenever a registrant wants to use a new online platform to speech, infringing on registrants’ First Amendment right to free speech.”

Similarly, Judge Henderson, who blocked the bill on Friday, said (as quoted by Wired): “The challenged provisions have some nexus with the government’s legitimate purpose of combating online sex offenses and human trafficking, but the government may not regulate expression in such a manner that a substantial portion of the burden on speech does not serve to advance its goals.”

Bloomberg quotes Henderson as saying, “The court does not lightly take the step of enjoining a state statute, even on a preliminary basis. However, just as the court is mindful that a strong majority of California voters approved Proposition 35 and that the government has a legitimate interest in protecting individuals from online sex offenses and human trafficking, it is equally mindful that anonymity is a shield from the tyranny of the majority, and that plaintiffs enjoy no lesser right to anonymous speech simply because they are unpopular.”

According to Wired, the next phase of the legal process could be a trial on the lawsuit’s merits. Bloomberg quotes a spokesman for California Attorney General Kamala Harris, as saying, “Our office is reviewing the decision.”

Mike Masnick at TechDirt writes of Proposition 35, “There are serious issues with the bill if you don’t know the details. First, many ‘sex offenders’ aren’t what you might think of as ‘sex offenders’ — people who are arrested for things like urinating in public, or for consensual sex between minors. Beyond that, this particular bill went really, really far, requiring all such “offenders” to hand over all details of every online service they used — no matter what the purpose.”

Sex offenders’ online rights have always been a hot button issue, and have received a great deal of attention over the past year, particularly. Last year, we wrote about a wave of challenges (especially from the ACLU) to state laws banning sex offenders’ use of social media.

One such law was in Indiana, where a judge ruled that a state ban on convicted sex offenders accessing social media sites at all, is lawful. A similar case took place in Nebraska, where a law banning registered sex offenders from holding social media accounts was thrown out. In Louisiana, a sex offender Facebook ban was deemed “unconstitutionally overbroad.”

“Although the act is intended to promote the legitimate and compelling state interest of protecting minors from internet predators, the near total ban on internet access imposed by the act unreasonably restricts many ordinary activities that have become important to everyday life in today’s world,” the judge said of that case.

Still, one Louisiana lawmaker passed a law requiring all registered sex offenders to list their status and crimes on any social network in which they participate.

Clearly this issue is seeing various state responses across the nation.

Should sex offenders be able to use social media sites? Should they be required to provide authorities with their user names? Tell us what you think.


Chris Crum
Chris Crum has been a part of the WebProNews team and the iEntry Network of B2B Publications since 2003. Follow Chris on Twitter, on StumbleUpon, on Pinterest and/or on Google: +Chris Crum.