I am not a father. Because of this, I don't possess the visceral, instinctual drive to protect my children at all costs. Of course, that doesn't mean that I'm insensitive to the challenges of protecting kids both online and offline, it simply means that safeguarding a kid's experience in any activity that they pursue is not always my first consideration.
Having said that, even I find myself giving a quick, visceral, instinctual response to this question: Should sex offenders be allowed on Facebook?
"Well, of course not."
And I'm pretty sure that I'm nowhere near alone regarding this sentiment. I mean, let's look at a brief history of bad people on the internet. You have your scammers, identity thieves, malware perpetuators, and online sexual predators - out there in a class of their own. Scum amongst scum, the wart on the pig's ass when it comes to internet exploitation. Ever since the first guy sat down in the first chat room and typed "a/s/l," the interwebs have been a place for those who were inclined to attempt to prey on the young and vulnerable. Of course, that's only one side of the internet, a dark side - but it's there.
Do sex offenders have a constitutional claim to use social media? Let us know what you think in the comments.
That's why you would be hard-pressed to find someone to immediately jump to the defense of sex offenders when it comes to their social media aspirations. People convicted of sex crimes + a giant network of hundreds of millions of teens as young as 13 (officially) = obvious disaster. Any parent or even non-parent can see how the anonymity and broad reach of social networking form a dangerous playground for kids. And that's before you populate it with convicted sex offenders.
And most people do agree with this position - at least legislatively. Many states have laws on the books that put an outright ban on registered sex offenders using social networks. Sometimes these laws extend to things like instant messaging services and the like. The laws vary in their scope and severity, for instance Illinois law says that sex offenders must "refrain from accessing or using and social networking website while on probation, parole, or mandatory supervised release."
In the state of New York, registered sex offenders must report all of their internet accounts - that includes email, instant messaging, and social networking accounts. That info can then be handed over to the services, who may boot the offenders at their own discretion. NY state law also puts an outright ban on social networking for sex offenders convicted of a crime against a minor or one involving the internet.
The point is, laws are nuanced. But in the United States, it's just plain difficult to Facebook if you're on the sex offender registry. For years, state attorneys general have been pushing the issue, which has led to the purging of sex offenders from networks likes Facebook and MySpace. Just recently, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman announced Operation: Game Over. That punnily-named initiative targeted another form of online social networking - game networks. In all, he announced that some high-profile companies likes Microsoft, Apple, E.A., and Disney had expunged over 3,500 registered sex offenders from platforms like Xbox LIVE and the PlayStation Network.
The thought behind this operation is the same as the thought behind any operation to remove sex offenders from popular online networks. As the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children's John Walsh put it, "we know that sex offenders target and lure children and how they look at the online community as their private, perverted hunting ground." It's hard to argue that the internet and social networking in particular makes predation easier than ever.
And with an estimated 745,000 registered sex offenders nationwide, it seems like an open and shut case, right? For the safety of the children, we should do all we can to prevent sex offenders from Facebooking.
For many (most, I would venture), that closes it. But it's not that simple for some sex offenders and civil right organizations. According to the AP, there's a wave of challenges to state laws banning sex offenders' use of social media, and the American Civil Liberties Union is stepping in to spearhead many of them.
One of these laws being challenged by the ACLU comes from Indiana. Their code states that "a person described in subsection who knowingly or intentionally uses a social networking web site; or an instant messaging or chat room program that the offender knows allows a person who is less than eighteen (18) years of age to access or use the web site or program commits a sex offender Internet offense, a Class A misdemeanor."
"To broadly prohibit such a large group of persons from ever using these modern forms of communication is just something the First Amendment cannot tolerate," said Ken Falk, legal director of Indiana's ACLU chapter.
To civil liberties activists, it's a free speech issue. No longer are Facebook, Twitter, and other social networks simply extras in a world dominated by more established forms of communication. Social networking has become such an integral part of our lives as a society, that to deny a subset of the population access to this ubiquitous method of communication is unconstitutional - a violation of the first amendment. They argue that even registered sex offenders have the right to participate in our collective online discussion.
Indiana isn't the only state where these laws are under fire. And the ACLU might have some precedent in their pockets. Back in February, a Louisiana judge ruled that a state law banning sex offenders from participating in social networking was "unconstitutionally overbroad."
He wrote in his opinion:
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 sweeping restrictions on the use of the internet for purposes completely unrelated to the activities sought to be banned by the Act impose severe and unwarranted restraints on constitutionally protected speech. More focused restriction that are narrowly tailored to address the specific conduct sought to be proscribed should be pursued.
As you can see, he leaves the door open for new legislation, albeit narrower legislation. The act that Governor Bobby Jindal signed into law in 2011 broadly banned "the using or accessing of social networking websites, chat rooms, and peer-to-peer networks by a person who is required to register as a sex offender [for violating statues involving minors]."
The judge's decision invokes the same argument being championed by the ACLU - that these laws infringe on activities that have become so vital in today's society. And when you think about it, the future may hold an even greater role for social media.
The free speech argument is strong enough to warrant consideration. Even so, it will be hard to sway public opinion on a topic that in so sensitive to so many people - the exploitation of children. Supporters of the strict no-social media laws need only reference cases like this to show why such laws are indeed necessary:
Pennsylvania Attorney General Linda Kelly describes the almost unbelievable web of deceit constructed by one online predator named William Ainsworth earlier this year:
"What we found was an intricate web of false Facebook identities that were used to establish online relationships with vulnerable girls, who were then manipulated into sending nude photos to Ainsworth – believing he was a young surfer living in Florida – or physically meeting Ainsworth for sex – under the impression that those sexual encounters would help raise money so the girls could run away to Florida to be with their new online friend.”
Here's how I broke down the sickeningly detailed scam in an earlier article about the case:
First, he created two fake Facebook profiles – Bill Cano and Anthony “Riip” Navari. He built up both profiles by creating a network of friends with people in the greater Pittsburgh area. Both of his characters were young surfers who had dropped out of high school and ran away to Florida. He supposedly bolstered the believability of his characters by taking images from around the internet.
Apparently, he amassed over 600 friends between the two fake profiles.
He then used Bill Cano to make contact with young girls. Once he had manipulated them by gaining their trust over a period of time, he would get them to send him nude and sexually explicit photos.
But that wasn’t enough. Here’s where the story takes an even darker turn.
Once Ainsworth had established a community of girls that cared about Bill Cano, he killed him off. Then comes “Rip” Navari, who swooped in posing to be Bill’s step-brother or best friend. He told the girls that Bill had been attacked and killed. It’s pretty easy to see how young girls could get wrapped up in all of this.
Ainsworth then put a third fake character into play, named Glenn Keefer. Keefer’s profile said that he was a “Sugardaddy looking for Sugarbabies,” living in the Pittsburgh area. Ainsworth used Rip to introduce the girls to Keefer. The story was that if they stripped or performed sex acts with Keefer, then he would give money to Rip so that Rip could help the girls fly down to Florida to be with him.
All in all, Ainsworth’s web tangled up 7 victims from the ages of 13-15. Five of those girls ended up sending nude photos and he actually met with two of them (posing as Keefer) for the purposes of sex.
It's a story like that that makes people feel strongly about this issue. It's also the reason why it's so difficult to write laws that strike a balance between safety and personal liberty.
Even if the sex offenders and the civil liberties groups find success in challenging the state laws, they still could run into another roadblock. That's because Facebook specifically prohibits convicted sex offenders from enjoying membership on their site.
Facebook unequivocally states:
Convicted sex offenders are prohibited from using Facebook. Once we are able to verify a user’s status as a sex offender, we immediately disable their account and remove their account and all information associated with it.
Facebook users are tasked with helping to rid the network of the sex offenders. They can provide Facebook with links to the violating user's sex offender registry listing, a news article about the crime, or even a court document. Any of those articles of proof can get a registered offender banned.
From the side of protecting kids, it's a no-brainer. Inarguably, social media sites like Facebook can be used as that "playground for online predators." We've seen it happen on numerous occasions. In terms of safety, there are really no arguments against banning registered sex offenders from these sites.
On the side of free speech and constitutionality, it gets a bit trickier for some. Not everyone can agree that there are first amendment implications with this issue, and even the ones that do will find it hard to get past the simple fact that kids are much safer online without former (and current) sexual predators lurking around their Timelines.
What do you think? Is there a first amendment contradiction within these no-social media laws? Is it fair to ban an entire group from participating in something that's such an integral part to modern life? Even if it's unfair, should it matter? Does committing a sex crime against a child make you forfeit the fairness argument? Let us know what you think in the comments.