The Senate Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing on March 2 entitled “Helping Law Enforcement Find Missing Children.” While this is just about the most popular topic for a hearing one could imagine, and I’m as much in favor of finding missing children as anyone, I’m a little concerned to see Sen. Klobuchar presiding over a hearing that could lead to new proposals for Internet regulation. As a former prosecutor, it certainly makes sense for her to have taken over Judiciary’s Subcommittee on Administrative Oversight and the Courts. But she’s engaged in blatant fear-mongering about online child safety in the past, so I think it’s fair to say that anyone listening to this hearing should take it with at least a grain of salt—especially if the hearing calls for new mandates for internet intermediaries to address a supposed “crisis.”
Last summer, as I noted, the Senator sent an angry letter to Facebook demanding the site require “a prominent safety button or link on the profile pages of users under the age of 18″ that included the following:
Recent research has shown that one in four American teenagers have been victims of a cyber predator.
The letter didn’t actually cite anything, so it’s not clear what research she was relying on, as I noted:
The 25% statistic is particularly incendiary, suggesting a nationwide cyber-predation crisis—perhaps leading the public to believe 8 or 9 million teens have been lured into sexual encounters offline. Perhaps the Senator considers every cyber-bully a cyber predator—which might get to the 25% number. But there are two serious problem with that moral equivalence.
First, to equate child predation with peer bullying is to engage in a dangerous game of defining deviancy down. Predation and bullying are radically different things. The first (sexual abuse) is a clear and heinous crime that can lead to long-term psychological damage. The second might be a crime in certain circumstances, but generally not. And it is even less likely to be a crime when it occurs among young peers, which research shows constitutes the vast majority of cases. As Adam Thierer and I noted in our Congressional testimony last year, there are legitimate concerns about cyberbullying, but it’s something best dealt with by parents and schools rather than prosecutors (like Klobuchar in her pre-Senate career).
I went on to cite summaries of the statistics on actual child predation rates—not even close to Sen. Klobuchar’s figure. If she had made these unsubstantiated claims in an academic paper, she would have been roundly criticized by her peers in the “reality-based community.” Yet in Congress, a willingness to sensationalize seems to have little consequence—other than a promotion to a larger bully pulpit from which to harangue. With her experience, she could be an an excellent Chairman and leader on these issues. I only hope it starts with a commitment to accuracy, lest unsubstantiated concerns about child safety lead to bad policy-making while real and substantiated concerns are under-emphasized.