VA proposal to add emails to sex offender registries

Attorney general wants sex offenders to add emails and IM names to online sex registry. EFF sites Constitutional and practical objections.

Virginia attorney general Bob McDonnell wants to require sex offenders to provide email addresses and IM identities to the state's online registry, The Roanoke Times reports. Offenders are already required to publicize name, age, height, weight, the color of their eyes and hair, and their home and work addresses.

By putting the information on the state's Sex Offender Registry, authorities hope to curb what they say is the escalating problem of sexual predators going online to find young victims through e-mail and Internet chat room banter.

"But in the 21st century, it is just as critical that they [sex offenders] register any e-mail addresses or IM [instant messaging] screen names," McDonnell said.

But is the benefit of being able to track convicts' online comings and goings worth the increased potential for abuse of people who have served their time? The question hangs on whether sex offenders soliciting sex online is truly a reason for concern.

To the extent that there is a problem, forcing sex offenders to register their e-mail addresses with police is the wrong way to address it, said Kevin Bankston, a staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit group that addresses free speech and privacy issues in the Internet era.

"I think this is a constitutionally dubious proposal that seems to be a reaction more to fear than to facts," Bankston said of the proposal by McDonnell and a similar national initiative announced last week by U.S. Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Charles Schumer, D-N.Y.

Social networking sites are increasingly coming under pressure to deal with the presence of online predators. Thus, it was a MySpace executive who suggested the idea to McDonnell's task force.

"I hope other social networking sites will join Myspace.com in implementing the software necessary to accomplish this goal," McDonnell said.

Objections to the proposal have both Constitutional and practical considerations.

"There is a constitutional problem when the government requires people to register the pseudonyms under which they speak and associate," he said. He likened the proposed law to a state prohibiting a sex offender from anonymously publishing a book about his experiences in prison.

Constitutional issues aside, there's also the practical question of how well McDonnell's proposal would work. Bankston said it would be "incredibly easy" for sex offenders to circumvent the law by registering one e-mail address with police and obtaining a second one they don't report.