Your Children Are Probably Safe Online – Really!

image People who know me and my history as a journalist know I have long had an interest in the safety of children and teenagers as they venture online — and a mean streak when it comes to those who exploit fears for their own personal, political, financial, or any kind of gain. Really.

Child Predators. Sex Offenders. Kiddie Porn. These are explosive topics that inspire disgust in anyone who has half a heart. But even half a heart has a tendency to overwhelm our capacity for rational thought when children are concerned.

In May, 2008, I attended a panel at the National Cable and Telecommunications Association convention  on child safety efforts headlined by then-FCC Commissioner Deborah Taylor Tate. Tate gave opening remarks during which she cited a statistic, attributed to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, which alleges that one in seven children are sexually solicited by predators online.

This statistic — and ones like it — are often used by those who call for more regulation of the Internet. Mandatory filtering, age verification — you name it, they’ve asked for it. But one expert task force already concluded there isn’t any "silver bullet" or massive danger. And another, this one funded by the government, is conducting a similar study. Will the results be the same? We will see. But the fear mongering continues.

image Even the experts speak out against it. The great people at the University of New Hampshire’s Crimes Against Children Research Center, who authored the study the "one in seven" number comes from, got so tired of it they even put out a "fact sheet" setting the record straight. The actual number of youths who are really, truly, solicited by predators is closer to one in twenty-five, they say. And those are "aggressive" solicitations that might have had potential to spill into real life. The researchers found that ONLY TWO of the youths surveyed had been victimized by someone they’d met online. Not enough to make any conclusions.

But the facts didn’t keep Tate from spreading the fear. When I confronted Tate with the researchers own fact sheet — correcting impressions of the very study she had just cited as authoritative — she dismissed my question outright as "quibbling" and maintained there really are a great number of predators out there that we must rush to keep pace with in order to protect our young.

Really?

Over at Tech Liberation Front, my friend Adam Thierer posted an essay today that finally, properly and with the appropriate passion, expresses the exasperation I feel when I see the fear mongers at work. [Disclosure: Adam has been a source for many of my news articles, was a member of the Berkman task force, is a member of the NTIA task force, and, most seriously, is a great guy who takes his work seriously].

Adam cites an article in The Economist – “Sex Laws: Unjust and Ineffective.” and writes:

If you want to keep your kids safe from real sex offenders, we need to scrap our current sex offender registries and completely rethink the way we define and punish sex offenses in this country.  That’s because, currently, a significant percentage of those people listed in sex offender registries pose almost no threat to children, making it difficult for us to know who really does pose a threat to our kids and what we should do about them.

America has 674,000 registered offenders, says the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children –the quasi-governmental charity which has a major role in publicizing alleged dangers to children online. The number is greater than the populations of Wyoming, Vermont, or North Dakota — as Adam notes.

And who are these people? A Georgia study cited by The Economist, in which Georgia’s official review sex offender registration review board found that of the 17,000 registered offenders in Georgia (home of Genarlow Wilson, if anyone remembers,) only 30 percent were "potentially threatening" and 5 percent were "clearly dangerous." But only "just over 100" were actual "predators" who have a compulsion to offend and should be monitored.

So of 17,000, only 100 of the registered offenders in Georgia are the ones who have a propensity to attack, says a state-sanctioned report. So of the 674,000 nation-wide, how many are predators? Adam muses…and fumes:

What about the real bad guys?  As the Georgia Review Board found, on 5% of those on their sex offender registry were “clearly dangerous” and “should be subject to tight restrictions and a lifetime of monitoring.”  These would be your true scum of the Earth; the sick fiends who really have preyed on children or raped repeatedly.  Here’s a question I want answered about these scum: Why do we need a sex offender registry for them at all? Why are they not behind bars for life?  Why don’t we cut off their privates!  I am deadly serious here.  If anyone raped one of my children, I would go after him and snip his manhood myself… slowly… with a dull, rusty blade.  Any yet we release these people to re-offend. And then we put them on a list. A list that had teens on it who made a stupid mistake in high school in the back of car and got caught. DOES THIS MAKE ANY DAMN SENSE???  (And yes, I am shouting when I use all caps!  Because I am sick and tired of this nonsense.)

National Center CEO Ernie Allen once told me the people the Center targets are the "worst of the worst." But the State of Georgia has classified their "worst of the worst," and Georgia might be far safer than Ernie would have you believe. I think Mr. Allen, who I have never met, genuinely cares about protecting kids. But he generally flips his wig when anyone suggests him or his group might be on the wrong side of an issue. He once used his weekend to write up a letter and press release in order to pressure a former employer, a news organization, to fire me for writing articles questioning some aspects of the Center’s operations. So when it comes to the subject of the "worst of the worst," Adam asks a good question:

[W]hen only a small percentage of those on the lists are the ones we truly need to fear (the child molesters and rapists), isn’t there a better solution? Like: LOCK THEM UP AND THROW AWAY THE KEY!  Or, if we are not going to do that, at least create a separate registry for these more serious offenders. Call it the “Scum of the Earth List” and make these people were bright neon monitoring bracelets and anklets so we can see them.

Read Adam’s post. And then next time you see "To Catch a Predator" on MSNBC, turn it off and take your kid for a walk. They’ll be safe.