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Hot on the Web

Defending the law, online

This column originally ran in ComputorEdge on June 22, 2007
(Issue 2525, Ontrack Careers Via Online Classes)

Child molestors and the Internet – it's a hard combination to ignore for an ambitious state attorney general looking to make a name for him- or herself. Might have a run for re-election coming up, or maybe you've got your eye on the governor's mansion.

Regardless, here you have allegations of registered sex offenders, including child molestors, trolling for victims on the Internet, MySpace no less.

It's the sort of story almost guaranteed to generate flattering headlines.

Of course, there's that pesky question of privacy laws. Even child molestors have rights under the Constitution.

But what the heck: They're sex offenders. Forget the law.

And, after a brief hiccup, it worked.

The ugly side of ambition

Here in San Diego, we've seen what happens when naked political ambition run amok collides with an elected public attorney position, albeit on a smaller, local level.

City Attorney Michael Aguirre has spent much of his time in office saying and doing anything to get his name in the paper or on the 11 p.m. news. Seeing as he's run for office several times before finally winning the city attorney's office, it's no secret that Aguirre hankers after a more prestigious post.

New York Gov. Elliott Spitzer rode that route straight to the top job in the Empire State. During his term as state attorney general, Spitzer launched all kinds of high-profile investigations, lawsuits and other publicity stunts. From suing record companies for charging too much money for CDs (hey, if they're too expensive, don't buy them) to suing the New York Stock Exchange for how much it paid its CEO, Spitzer was a publicity hound par excellence.

What brought that to mind was a news report in mid-May that the attorneys general from eight states had sent a letter to demanding that the company turn over the names of registered sex offenders who had accounts on the site.

MySpace refused.

Now, this was hardly a case of corporate America defending child molestors (although that's how the rebuffed AGs tried to spin it afterward).

Rather, MySpace's security officer pointed out that the state attorneys general had failed to follow federal law in making their request.

Which is a bit of an odd thing for eight of the supposedly sharpest legal minds in the country. Particularly when these eight legal beagles are sworn to defend and uphold the law.

But MySpace countered that the Electronic Communications Privacy Act requires all online companies to safeguard their users' privacy – unless and until a court issues a subpoena, court order or search warrant.

Something the state AGs neglected to do. Maybe because their letter never even hinted that any crime had been committed – only that there were rumors of registered sex offenders on MySpace, and the attorneys general wanted to know who they were.

Folding under pressure

No explanation was given, but less than a week later, MySpace folded and said it would hand over the information.

One presumes the Electronic Communications Privacy Act remains in force, but who's going to sue to enforce it on behalf of convicted sex offenders?

What was most disturbing about all this is that it was the leading law enforcement officials from eight states – Connecticut, Georgia, Idaho, Mississippi, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio and Pennsylvania – who were the ones flouting the law.

Yes, yes, I know – we're just talking child molestors. Convicted no less. Not deserving of any rights.

But the point deserves making anew that all of us are only as free as the least free among us.

If state attorneys general can simply ignore federal law in going after the private files of child molestors, then they can do the same thing to you or I.

Anyway, nearly as disturbing as the state AGs seeming to violate federal law was the fact that their assumption that MySpace was tracking registered sex offenders using its services turned out to be true.

Yes, I have four little ones at home, and I'd hardly want some convicted perv making contact with them via MySpace.

At the same time, it's not be explained very clearly just how MySpace had managed to get information on the registered sex offenders, nor run it across its own records to match up registered sex offenders with MySpace accounts.

News articles about this issue did say that MySpace – which is owned by media magnate Rupert Murdoch – has closed more than 7,000 accounts (out of more than 180 million) for belonging to a registered sex offender.

But if they're tracking this, what else are they tracking?

Just what does MySpace know about me, you or your family?

And have they turned it over to the government without our knowledge?

It's just a bunch of sex offenders, convicted and registered.

I know that.

But it still doesn't sit right with me.