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Bill to track sex predators on Web offered

Sponsors want offenders to register e-mail addresses. Networking sites could use the data to protect children.

January 31, 2007|Jim Puzzanghera | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Convicted sex offenders released from prison must register their home addresses with authorities. Now some in Congress want to extend that requirement to cyberspace.

To prevent sexual predators from trolling the Internet for young victims, a bipartisan group of lawmakers Tuesday introduced legislation that would require sex offenders to register their e-mail addresses and make them available to social networking sites. The proposal also would make it a crime for adults to lie about their age in pursuit of sex with a minor.

"Just as we protect kids in physical neighborhoods, we have to protect them in online communities," said Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y), a sponsor along with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). House legislation was introduced by four lawmakers, including Earl Pomeroy (D-N.D.), who helped create a new online database of convicted sex offenders last year.

Named in memory of Adam Walsh, the son of "America's Most Wanted" host John Walsh, and other victims, that legislation easily passed Congress and was signed by President Bush in July.

Backers predicted the new proposal, called the Keeping the Internet Devoid of Sexual Predators Act, would receive similar support, although the Electronic Frontier Foundation has expressed privacy concerns., the most-visited social networking site, endorsed the legislation and already is using data from the existing registry to try to identify sexual predators, said Chief Security Officer Hemanshu Nigam. Concerns about child safety have dogged MySpace and its parent, Fox Interactive Media.

"Our laws need to change with the times," said Nigam, a former federal prosecutor hired last year. "We can no longer unwittingly provide an advantage to predators online.", another popular social networking site, also backs the bill.

The bill would require convicted sex offenders to register any e-mail address or instant messaging handle with the National Sex Offender Registry. Failure to comply would result in a maximum 10-year prison term and constitute a parole violation that would send any released felon on supervised release back to prison.

The information would not be released to the public, but would be provided by the Justice Department to commercial social networking sites. Although sites would not be required to use the database, Pomeroy said they would be risking civil liability if they did not.

In addition, the legislation would make it a federal crime, with a maximum 20-year prison sentence, for Internet users to misrepresent their ages in order to engage in or facilitate sexual conduct with a minor.

Sponsors admit the law would not be foolproof and that convicted sex offenders simply could create new e-mail addresses. But the stiff penalties would lead many to comply, just as they do with their physical addresses, the lawmakers said.

"Maybe you can't force them off the Internet, maybe you can't force them to change their ways," said Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.). "But you increase the penalty and increase the way we track their movements as best we possibly can."

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