Virginia leads internet safety push

Last year, Virginia became the first state in the nation to enact a law requiring public and private schools to teach students about internet safety and warn them about online predators. Now, the state is looking to become the first to adopt what it views as another key internet safety strategy.

Virginia Attorney General Bob McDonnell on Dec. 11 said he will seek legislation requiring convicted sex offenders to register their online identities with the state to help MySpace and other online teen hangouts more easily block their access.

If enacted, Virginia would be the first state to require registration of eMail addresses and instant-messaging identities on the state’s sex offender registry, McDonnell’s office said. “We require all sex offenders to register their physical and mailing addresses in Virginia, but in the 21st century it is just as critical that they register any eMail addresses or IM screen names,” McDonnell said in a news release.

Donna Rice Hughes, president of the internet safety group Enough Is Enough and a member of Virginia’s Youth Internet Safety Task Force, said that although there’s no “silver bullet,” the legislation will be a helpful part of the solution.

Parents, school administrators, and law-enforcement authorities have grown increasingly worried that teens are at risk on MySpace and other social-networking sites, which provide tools for messaging, sharing photos, and creating personal pages known as profiles.

MySpace announced plans in November to develop technologies designed to help block convicted sex offenders by checking profiles against government registries, but the News Corp. site’s ability to do so is limited by the fact that users do not have to use their real names.

Requiring registrations of eMail addresses would make matching easier. To guard against offenders registering one address but using another on MySpace, the penalty would be the same as it would be for not registering or for providing incorrect information, which could result in a misdemeanor or felony charge.

There are more than 550,000 registered sex offenders in the United States, including 13,000 in Virginia, the Associated Press reports. McDonnell said eMail registration requirements are better done at the state level, because most prosecutions and convictions for sex offenders occur under state jurisdiction.

Hemanshu Nigam, MySpace’s chief security officer, applauded the Virginia announcement.

“This legislation is an important recognition that the internet has become a community as real as any other neighborhood and is in need of similar safeguards,” Nigam said. U.S. Sens. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and John McCain, R-Ariz., have announced plans for similar federal legislation to apply to those on probation or parole. The Virginia proposal is not limited to those still on probation or parole.

Regardless of eMail registration requirements, MySpace is deploying a database that will contain the names and physical descriptions of convicted sex offenders in the United States. An automated system will search for matches between the database and MySpace user profiles. Employees will then delete any profiles that match.

Skeptics say such technologies will address only part of the problem, as much of the danger comes from sexual predators who have never been convicted and thus are not in the databases.

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