January 17-23, 2007

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Technology News - Annalee Newitz

Technology News

The Stop Speech Act

By Annalee Newitz

NOW THAT Congress is back in session, I'm bracing myself for the resurrection of the Stop the Online Exploitation of Our Children Act. This yet another bill in a long line, dating back to the Communications Decency Act and Child Online Protection Act, that attempts to curtail free expression online by raising the specter of child abuse. Proposed at the end of last session, the bill is the brainchild of Sens. John McCain and Charles Schumer, who essentially launched it as a test balloon before recess, knowing it would never reach the floor. But both politicians promised that they would be proposing a new version this year.

Leaked drafts of the Stop Online Exploitation of Our Children Act read like a speech-squasher's gift list. The bill would require the government to create a list containing the email addresses of known sex offenders—probably compiled from various state databases of sex offenders.

All online publishers, including bloggers and blog aggregators like LiveJournal, will be forced to police everything posted on their sites, searching for emails from this list. If they find a match, publishers must delete the accounts associated with the offending email address—as well as anything that person has published on the site. Failure to do so will result in steep fines. Fines will also be imposed if publishers fail to report behavior that might involve child porn or obscene behavior.

Here are four good reasons to oppose this legislation:

(1) It imposes an undue burden on small publishers. Under the proposed rule, even small bloggers, chat-room operators, social-networking sites and webzine publishers will have to comb through the content on their site, looking for things that appear to have been written by people on the list of sex offenders that the government will compile. Failure to do so will result in heavy fines. In practice, this will probably mean that sites offering community forums, such as Alternet and even Slashdot, may simply have to stop allowing people to post. There will be too great a risk that they'll be fined if they miss a post by an alleged sex offender.

(2) It misses the target. Keeping email lists and deleting things written by "sex offenders" is dangerous because the category is very capacious. In states like Texas, people arrested for streaking or public nudity are classed as sex offenders. In Illinois, convicted skinny dippers (i.e., people engaging in "public indecency") must register as sex offenders. In addition, many databases of sex offenders have been shown to be full of errors, and it's possible for two people to have very similar email addresses. Too many innocent people will get caught up in this net and find their words deleted from the web.

(3) It will not stop people who are currently committing crimes. This proposed law focuses on persecuting people who once engaged in criminal acts, rather than people currently engaged in criminal acts. If a former sex offender is posting appropriate messages in a therapy group or talking with other model-train hobbyists, there is absolutely no reason—other than sheer prejudice—for deleting what she's written. In fact, preventing convicted sex offenders from having a social outlet online might lead to more recidivism.

Moreover, if publishers are throwing all their energies into hunting down and deleting convicted sex offenders, publishers may not have enough resources to track down nonconvicts who are posting comments that are genuinely harmful to children. If the senators were truly interested in good preventative strategies, they would aim to stop harmful acts instead of targeting a broad swathe of people who may or may not be doing anything wrong.

(4) It sets a bad precedent in which untrained citizens are asked to report on each other. Certain groups, such as doctors and therapists, are required by law to report if one of their clients is a danger to herself or others. Schools are required to report suspected child abuse. But these groups are full of professionals who are trained to identify dangerous behavior that may affect children.

Publishers are not trained to identify such behavior, nor should they be asked to do so. If we force web publishers to turn in or silence their fellow citizens, which group will be forced to do it next? Sales clerks? Librarians? Rental-car agents? Forcing citizens to turn against each other is not going to prevent crime. It's only going to spark prejudice and lead to greater social injustice. In the meantime, people who are actually engaging in crimes will be more likely to escape notice.

Be on the lookout for the next version of the McCain Schumer Stop Online Expression bill—especially as election season draws a bit nearer. Don't let it fool you. This isn't about saving the children. It's about scapegoating and censorship. And it will let the real criminals go free.

Annalee Newitz ([email protected]) is a surly media nerd who isn't in your database.

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