This month, as part of “National Internet Safety Month,” I have been posting a series of essays about how parents can deal with potentially objectionable online content or contacts. In my new book, Parental Controls and Online Child Protection: A Survey of Tools and Methods, I argue that the best way to deal with concerns about online child safety is through a “3-E Solution,” which stands for “education, empowerment, and enforcement.” The empowerment and education components have already been discussed extensively in previous installments in this series. (See parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8).
But, to reiterate, it is essential that parents take steps to mentor and monitor their children as they enter the world of cyberspace. And industry should empower parents with more and better tools to help them do that job. But the tools discussed throughout my book provide a great deal of assistance already.
As essay #7 in this series made clear, education is even more important. “You need to take a holistic approach” to such problems, notes Ron Teixeira, executive director of the National Cyber Security Center.” Teixeira argues that it is essential that we drill basic lessons into our children–the digital equivalent of “don’t take candy from strangers,” for example–to ensure that they are prepared for whatever technologies or platforms follow social networking sites. “Education is the way you teach children to be proactive, and that will stay with them forever,” he rightly concludes. As Parry Aftab of Wired Safety argues, it’s about teaching our kids to “use the filter between their ears” and “make responsible decisions about their use of technology.” Critical thinking, in other words, is the best form of self-protection.
As will be discussed next, the final “E” in the 3-E Solution is enforcement, as in stepped up law enforcement efforts to find and adequately prosecute child predators.
Getting Sentencing Right
The most essential role that government has is to protect people from harm, especially helpless kids. It is not the job of private companies to enforce law and order or bring criminals to justice. That is the government’s job. Unfortunately, our government isn’t doing a very good job of it when it comes to online child safety.
Here is the sobering fact to consider: a 2003 Department of Justice study reported that the average sentence for child molesters was approximately seven years and, on average, they were released after serving just three of those seven years. That is an extremely troubling statistic. If you have young children in your home, then it is even more upsetting. When our government is putting people who viciously hurt innocent children behind bars for just seven years and then letting them out after only three, then our government has failed us at a very fundamental level.
Worse yet, policymakers then point fingers at everyone else and scold Internet companies and ISPs for not doing enough to protect children from predators, all the while conveniently ignoring the government’s own failed policies that allow those predators to be on the streets and behind keyboards in the first place. It’s not “market failure” at work when child predators are lurking online; it is government failure in the extreme. We are never going to solve this problem until we hunt down the bad guys and lock them up for a long, long time.
Consider a startling October 2006 special report by Wired reporter Kevin Poulsen. In his article, Poulsen explained how he helped New York law enforcement officials track down and apprehend a sex offender by writing a program that searched MySpace’s member profiles for registered sex offenders. Here’s what was shocking about the specific perpetrator that they nabbed, a 39-year-old man named Andrew Lubrano:
Lubrano was sentenced to three years probation in 1987 for sexual abuse against a 7-year-old boy, according to police. In 1988, he got another probation term for second-degree sex abuse. In 1995, he earned a 3 to 9 year prison term for sexually abusing two boys he’d been babysitting, one 11, the other 9. The parole board turned Lubrano down three times, and he was cut loose in September 2004 largely unsupervised, having served every day of his nine-year max. By November 2005 he was on MySpace, making friends.
When this story broke, many critics were quick to jump on MySpace and other social networking sites as the root of this problem. But is the existence of MySpace or other social networking sites really the problem here? Or is it the fact that this child abuser was sitting behind a keyboard when he should have been sitting in a jail cell? Why is it MySpace’s problem to solve instead of the government’s?
What’s even more troubling is that after letting the child abusers out of jail, governments then expend considerable sums of money and law enforcement resources for “community supervision” and “sex offender registries” to give us a better idea of where all the child molesters live in our neighborhoods. This is of little consolation to most parents who would probably feel much more comfortable having these predators locked up in a prison instead of living somewhere in their communities.
What we must ask ourselves as a society is this: With the exception of murder, is there any crime more heinous than child rape or child sexual abuse? If we can agree that sexual abuse of children is indeed that serious, then we ought to be considering sentences that are significantly longer than just three to seven years to ensure that convicted child abusers aren’t out on the streets and sitting behind keyboards looking to prey upon children again. President Bush recently signed the “Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act of 2006,” which increases mandatory minimum sentences for various crimes against children. That’s certainly a helpful step in the right direction, but more can be done.
In particular, it is also essential that law enforcement officials receive the resources and training necessary to adequately monitor online networks for predators and to bring them to justice when they are found. For example, law enforcement agencies need online forensic labs and experts to help investigate online crimes. And they need to be trained to conduct proper sting operations to find predators before they harm our children. As outlined next, industry is already assisting law enforcement officials in this regard.
Industry Assistance and Training for Law Enforcement
Many leading Internet operators provide valuable assistance to law enforcement agencies or partner with law enforcement officials on investigations to help protect children. For example:
• AOL: Since 1996, AOL has been working with law enforcement officials to trace and apprehend child predators or child pornographers. AOL was an earlier pioneer of 24/7 law enforcement hotlines and was the first ISP to initiate an Amber Alert program. AOL personnel also offer extensive cybercrime, digital evidence, and computer forensic science courses to a wide variety of federal and state law enforcement officers. And AOL provides free litigation support and expert witnesses to prosecutors for criminal cases involving records obtained from the company.
• Microsoft: Like AOL, Microsoft sponsors computer forensic and technical training programs for law enforcement officials both here and abroad and has compliance officers on hand 24/7 to field law enforcement inquiries. In 2003, Microsoft developed the Child Exploitation Tracking System (CETS), “an open standards-based software tool that enables law enforcement to better gather and share evidence of online child exploitation over a secure system based on legal agreements in place. CETS permits investigators to easily import, organize, analyze, share and search information from the point of detection through the investigative phase to arrest and conviction.”
• Google: Google has a legal team devoted to responding to law enforcement requests for assistance and the company responds to hundreds of subpoenas each year to assist child safety investigations. Google strictly prohibits advertising about illegal content in any of its products or sites and encourages users to report any illegal content they encounter to the Google Help Center to ensure that it is immediately passed along to law enforcement officials. It’s also worth noting that Google allows other organizations to freely use its Google Maps technology to easily track convicted sex offenders living in their communities. For example, www.mapsexoffenders.com and www.familywatchdog.us both rely on the Google Maps service to trace convicted sex offenders.
• Yahoo!: Yahoo! also has a compliance team in place to handle online emergencies 24 hours a day and provides training and assistance to law enforcement officials. Yahoo! created its “Law Enforcement Compliance Manual” to ensure that law enforcement officials know how Yahoo! can assist them in online investigations. In particular, Yahoo! provides assistance through the Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) task forces, the American Prosecutors Research Institute, and the newly launched Financial Coalition Against Child Porn.
• MySpace.com: MySpace has created and widely distributed its “Law Enforcement Officer Guide” that instructs law enforcement agencies on how to work with MySpace regarding subpoenas and requests for information.
In addition, these companies and many others work closely with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) to combat online child pornography or predation in a variety of ways. NCMEC has developed a wide variety of excellent resources to teach children about online safety. For example, in 2006 NCMEC partnered with Duracell to create the “Power of Parents” program and website which helps parents teach their kids about both online and offline safety. The site offers free storybooks and “teachable moment” manuals to help parents talk to their kids about protecting themselves.
In May 2007, NCMEC also launched the “Take 25” project to coincide with the 25th anniversary of President Ronald Reagan designating May 25th as “National Missing Children’s Day.” NCMEC’s new program encourages families to take 25 minutes to talk with their children about safety and abduction prevention. Dozens of events across the nation were planned to highlight the effort.
[The tenth and final installment in this series will focus on teaching kids proper online etiquette & the importance of informal household media rules.]