My letter opposing Alabama Senate Bill 48, which bans registrants from social networking sites, and is broadly interpreted and can include other non-social sites.
Dear Senators Benefield, Smitherman, and Denton,
I am writing to you today in opposition to your proposed Senate Bill 48, the proposed law to ban sex offenders from "social websites."
I am a former sex offender residing in Sheffield, Alabama, and a nationally-known civil rights advocate for the rights of individuals who have completed their sentences. I was granted a partial pardon, restoring my voting rights, from this state in May 2007, a powerful testament to my status as a reformed individual. My primary web address is www.oncefallen .com, but I use certain sites like Twitter and Google Blogspot to showcase my authorship and writings. In addition, I am involved in a national movement to reform well-intentioned but ill-conceived laws, which also utilize forums and sites that could be considered "social networking sites" under your proposed bill.
I am very concerned your bill gives a harsher penalty for simply participating in a social networking site than someone who has actual physical contact with a child. I would also like to point out that many social networking sites ban the access or use of their services by minors, FaceBook allows 13-year-olds, and MySpace 14-year-olds to access such sites, which also allow adults on said sites. Even without age restrictions, there is no way to monitor every internet activity. [See http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1156136/Children-exposed-pornography-prostitution-drugs-Twitter.html]
In addition, your bill is not very clear as to what is licit and illicit use. For example, I use Twitter [http://twitter.com/oncefallenbook] as a way to advertise my book and website, as well as keeping my followers up to date on the latest must-read articles, research papers, and site updates. By virtue of the fact that the aforementioned article states Twitter has no explicit age restrictions, this would mean I'd be in violation of this law and be incarcerated for 20 years, with no good time or parole, simply because I have a Twitter account.
In passing this bill, you will be criminalizing legitimate uses for the internet or sites that could be deemed social networking sites. For example, I have posted online responses to articles at the Montgomery Advertiser website. As with many sites, the Montgomery Advertiser has a profile page as a registered member of the site, and you have to be a registered member in order to post comments. And children could theoretically access my Montgomery Advertiser profile. Thus, by exercising my First Amendment right to comment on a public message board, I'd be a Class B felon in this state, and I'd serve more time than if I had touched a child. In addition, places that offer both IM services and email, such as “Yahoo!,” would fall under these laws, as the profiles connected to the service could possibly be accessed by children.
This bill is difficult to enforce, but could be subject to abuses. It only takes a couple of minutes to create a new account. I could even create an account in the name of a Senator if the name is unused by a certain service; as I’ve discovered as a victim of online harassment, my identity can be used by someone else in the commission of a crime. There are also anonymous browsers, web services, and netbooks/ PDAS/ notebook computers to mask illegal activity. What would be next? Will registrants unable to use or possess cell phones or portable computers? On one hand, criminals could easily circumvent the law; on the other hand, reformed registrants using web services for legitimate enterprises could be locked away for years or decades!
Courts have ruled against many restrictions that criminalize normally legal activities [see Johnson et al. v. City of Cincinnati, 2002 FED App. 0332P (6th Cir.), cert. denied, US Supreme Court case no. 02-1452]. In addition, courts have ruled that the mere suspicion that one might engage in illicit activity is not enough to justify punishment [see US v. Cintolo, 818 F. 2d. 980, 1003 (1987), Tot v. US, 319 US 463 (1943), and Robinson v. California, 270 US 660 (1962)].
Studies have shown the fear of "online predators" is grossly exaggerated, and laws directed at "online predators" fail because of our misconceptions regarding online “predators” [Janis Wolak, David Finkelhor, Kimberly J. Mitchell, and Michele L. Ybarra. "Online 'Predators' and their victims." American Psychologist, Vol. 63 No. 2 February-March 2008). Sadly, we’ve based our perceptions of the nature of online solicitation by watching re-runs of “To Catch a Predator;” many of those cases on that show were thrown out in court. Studies have shown most teens solicited online for sex were from their peer group. Also interesting to note is in the study of online solicitation, not one online solicitation resulted in physical contact [http://www.csicop.org/si/show/predator_panic_a_closer_look/].
The vast majority of sex crime arrests are of people not on the sex offender registry, i.e. first time offenders. We’d spend millions of dollars on an expensive law that will do nothing to prevent crime, yet we won’t spend a dime on treatment and prevention programs. We spend millions on long periods of incarceration, denial of parole, and good time, but not a dime to treat the offender to become a productive citizen upon his or her release. We’ll spend millions to incarcerate a teen for “sexting,” but not one dime to educate our youth on sexual responsibility and accountability .
Thus, I implore you to look long and hard at this law and realize it is nothing more than another piece of well-intentioned but poorly designed laws. It is time Alabama learns to do what is RIGHT rather than what is popular. The thought of spending millions to incarcerate people, who simply use the internet to make a living, protest or petition our government, or even keep up with family and loved ones, is simply appalling. In regards to certain sites like Face Book and MySpace, they do not allow registrants to use their services in the first place; however, the potential for abuse of these laws and overextending of the punishments to legitimate purposes of this law is unconstitution al, and likely to be successfully challenged in a court of law.
I am most troubled there is no disclaimer on your state website regarding the abuse of registry information (thus allowing vigilantes to target registrants and family members without recourse), while simultaneously pushing a bill barring registrants from legitimate enterprises. At what point do we, as a society, put a stop to draconian punishments of those who have finished their sentences and stop sliding down the slippery slope of Predator Panic? I hope you do the right thing and repeal support for this terrible law.