Internet Data Storage Is The Wrong Way To Combat Child Sexual Exploitation

by on September 20, 2006

Kudos to Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales for cracking down on child sexual exploitation, but it’s troubling he’s still considering whether to ask Congress for legislation to require communications companies to store things like search queries and which web sites their customers visit. Proposals like this endanger the civil liberties of the innocent and risk creating a police state. They are a dangerous substitute for adequately-funded law enforcement and prisons, and for a higher priority on children’s safety than on second- and third-chances for dangerous criminals.

Jim discussed some of the problems with government-mandated data retention here and Adam added his thoughts here. I would add that when Congress held hearings on protecting children from sexual predators in 2005, it emerged that protecting children didn’t used to be a very high priority for some public officials. Consider these findings:

There is a wide disparity among State registration requirements and notification obligations for sex offenders. This lack of uniformity has been exploited by child sexual offenders with tragic consequences….

The most significant enforcement issue in the sex offender program is that over 100,000 sex offenders, or nearly one-fifth in the Nation are ‘missing,’ meaning that they have not complied with sex offender registration requirements….

States tend to take a passive role in disseminating sex offender information, relying instead on law enforcement to disseminate such information to interested entities such as schools and community groups….

The Federal sentences imposed for sexual abuse and exploitation of children appear to be unduly lenient. More frequently, judges are exercising their discretion to impose sentences that depart from the carefully considered ranges developed by the U.S. Sentencing Commission…. The sentencing data for the last year shows that for sexual abuse crimes, the mean sentence length was only 73 months and the median was 41 months. For pornography and prostitution, the mean sentence was 63 months and the median was 33 months.

The Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act of 2006 aimed to address many of these problems, and the Justice Department is asking for additional legislation providing for such things as stiffer penalties for Internet Service Providers who fail to report child pornography and warning labels on sexually-explicit web sites.

Earlier this year, the Department of Justice complained that an ISP couldn’t respond to a lawful subpoena because it didn’t retain the necessary customer data. Law enforcement officials are reported to want to be able to access customer data for a minimum of 6 months and a maximum of 2 years, although a Member of Congress once suggested permanent storage.

A spokesman for the Department of Justice has said that if the department asks Congress for legislation requiring data retention,

three stipulations will apply: The actual content that customers looked at on the Web will not be stored; all data will be stored by the companies, not the government; and the government will have access to the data only by current means, such as warrants and subpoenas.

This is well and good. But it’s just a matter of time before these safeguards, like the good intentions behind them, fall victim to the ever-increasing need for cops and prosecutors to accomplish more with fewer resources. Civil litigants, private investigators and hackers will also seek access, and data security breaches will occur. The additional regulation of communications providers will lead to additional costs which must be borne by the consumer and to unintended consequences. All of this can and should be avoided.

Child sexual exploitation is fundamentally a problem of politicians who would rather reward the public employees and social service clients who elected them than combat crime, as well as the liberal fantasy that the people who commit crimes are the real victims. We can attack these problems with tougher punishments and by withholding federal funds from state and local politicians who tolerate these crimes.

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