Kansas Attorney General Paul Morrison deserves applause for his efforts to track the Internet activity of sex offenders in the state. However, an agreement announced last week with the MySpace Web site also points out the difficulty of monitoring and restricting such dangerous communications.
Under pressure from state attorneys general across the country, MySpace agreed last week to turn over identifying information on sex offenders who had opened accounts with the service. The information will be used to make sure the offenders are complying with parole and probation conditions that require them not to have contact with young people who might be potential victims.
This certainly is a laudable step in the right direction, but how effective can it possibly be? MySpace is eager to cooperate with law enforcement at least in part because it wants to avoid restrictions that federal and state governments might place on its activities if abuses continue.
Morrison also said his office would continue to work with MySpace and other social networking Web sites to monitor illegal activity and perhaps seek ways to prevent children from signing on to such sites unless they have parental permission. But the problems in gathering and confirming information on Web users are immense. How would Web sites or a government entity verify parental permission for a child to have access to a site?
A MySpace representative said the site would ask states to require sex offenders to register their e-mail addresses so MySpace could block their efforts to get an account. That's great, but it's pretty easy to give a false e-mail address or later switch to an address or user name that hasn't been registered. Offenders could use any number of user names on various sites to shield their identities.
The anonymity and ease of access that users enjoy on the Internet make it difficult for either parents or governments to adequately monitor illegal online activities. Yet, Web sites and law enforcement must find a way to monitor and control such activity if the Internet is going to be a safe and effective source of information, communication and fun.
Last week's agreement with MySpace was a good move, but it seems to be only a tiny step toward regulating the vast opportunities for abuse of the World Wide Web.