December 12, 2006 10:13 AM PST

Va. proposal would track sex offenders by e-mail, IM

Virginia's attorney general wants to make his state the first to require convicted sex offenders to submit their e-mail addresses and instant-messaging aliases to law enforcement authorities--and he has MySpace.com's enthusiastic approval.

Bob McDonnell, a Republican, said he plans to push a proposal when state legislators return early next year that would create a database containing all the electronic identifiers of registered sex offenders.

"This is not a foolproof approach, as we all fully realize how easy it is to get new e-mail addresses," McDonnell, a longtime state legislator who was sworn in as attorney general in January 2006, said in a statement released Monday. "But by requiring registration, and by making the penalties for failure to register the same as those for failure to register physical and mailing addresses, we will take another positive step towards protecting children online."

The Virginia proposal arrives just days after U.S. Sen. John McCain proposed a bill in Congress that would require a similar expansion of the sex offender registry on a national scale--and an additional step. Under the Arizona Republican's bill (click for PDF), any so-called "social-networking" site would be obligated to remove any Web page that's "associated" with a sex offender--although the proposal has drawn some concern because it does not define the term social-networking site.

The idea behind an expanded registry is to allow so-called "social networking sites" like MySpace to seamlessly cross-check their user registries against sex offender databases, enabling them to block or delete users whose information appears there. It was unclear whether the Virginia proposal would actually require such removal or merely suggest it. A copy of the legislation was not expected to be made available until next week.

McDonnell said he worked with MySpace executives and members of the state's Youth Internet Safety Task Force, which includes representatives from state government and companies like Yahoo and Microsoft, to come up with the proposal.

MySpace Chief Security Officer Hemanshu Nigam applauded the move, saying in a statement Monday that passage of such a law would be "a landmark moment in the history of Internet safety."

MySpace has been lobbying state and federal officials for such an e-mail address registry with an eye toward making its own predator-tracking initiative run more smoothly--and perhaps in an effort to stave off more onerous restrictions that have been on politicians' minds lately. The wildly popular site announced last week that it planned within 30 days to build its own national, real-time sex offender database, based on publicly available information from existing state and federal information banks.

That technology, in theory, would allow the site to monitor and remove the some 550,000 registered sex offenders nationwide from its site, based on scanning for and matching existing information like hair or eye color, name, age, and physical address. But since that data is particularly easy to omit or falsify on user profiles, MySpace has maintained that e-mail addresses and other online aliases would be a far more effective way of pinpointing registered sex offenders.

While harvesting online identities may be a useful to some extent, questions remain over its enforcement, said Leslie Harris, executive director of the Washington-based Center for Democracy and Technology.

"People can't move every day, but they certainly can change their email addresses," she said. "Given the breadth of ways that people now can communicate online...I have some question about whether, at the end of the day, this is workable."

The as-yet unavailable Virginia bill could prove even more problematic if it, like the McCain proposal, imposes new obligations on network operators and service providers that have traditionally been shielded from the burden of monitoring their site's users, Harris added.

McDonnell plans to unveil more details about his own proposal next week as part of a package of Internet safety recommendations. Among those recommendations will be data retention by Internet service providers, said J. Tucker Martin, a spokesman for the Virginia attorney general's office.

That controversial notion--endorsed this year by law enforcement officials, the Department of Justice, and some members of Congress--would force companies to store information about their subscribers' activities for a certain length of time in order to help nab suspects in investigations. Martin declined on Tuesday to describe the planned recommendation further.

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