Newsletter - Winter 2009
Message from the Executive Director
As the New Year is upon us, we are grateful for your partnership and support in our efforts to protect kids from sexual predators, pornography and other online threats, as well as potential harms posed by new, emerging Internet technologies. Together, we have fought for our children's safety, and we look forward to continuing to protect children against dangers they should never face.
Looking back on 2008, Stop Child Predators made significant strides in protecting the lives of children nationwide. We continued to push for Jessica's Law in six states, and declared victory in Massachusetts, North Carolina and Utah. In Florida, we helped successfully strengthen Jessica's Law by imposing a mandatory life sentence on sex offenders convicted of a second violation of lewd or lascivious molestation against a victim under the age of 12. Efforts to pass Jessica's Law are ongoing in Colorado, Idaho, New Jersey and Vermont, and at the very least we expect to add Vermont to the win column in the next couple of weeks.
Last spring, we worked on model legislation to stop the exploitation of our children online. Fully 96 percent of teenagers use some form of online social networking technology, including instant messaging and chat forums. Yet, the majority of students don't receive classroom education about the importance of Internet safetyeven with today's growing awareness of the safety issues raised by chat rooms and social networking sites. In fact, only a few states require that online safety education be provided in schools, with Virginia becoming just last year the first state to pass a law that mandates the integration of Internet safety into regular instruction. Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum has called for a similar approach. But unfortunately, most schools simply ban the use of social networking sites while on school property, rather than educating students about the importance of Internet safety.
Experience and common sense suggest that education and good parenting are the most effective approaches to promoting online safety awareness, but sensible regulation of social networking websites must also play a key role in protecting children from online threats. That's why we have worked with an alliance of leading online and e-commerce companies to create model legislation that helps empower parents, educate kids, and support law enforcement in pursuing and controlling child predators online. This legislation seeks to register the electronic addresses of sex offenders, enact tough penalties for enticement crimes and the possession and distribution of child pornography, and criminalize age misrepresentation when the intent is to solicit a child. To date, about a dozen states have considered the legislation, and we plan to continue to push for these reforms in 2009, with Maryland being our first target.
We were proud to formalize last summer our commitment to online safety, when Stop Child Predators launched a coalition of national, state, and local advocacy organizations to form Stop Internet Predators, a new initiative designed to increase awareness of the child safety implications of emerging Internet technologies. Armed with the knowledge that child predators are savvy in their attempts to lure children using popular websites like MySpace.com, Craigslist and even Match.com, the coalition is raising public awareness on Internet safety, and educating lawmakers and citizens on issues like cyberbullying and cybersquatting, among others. In December, I had the opportunity to join Missouri State Representative Ed Emory and Bill Guidera of News Corporation (parent company of MySpace.com) for a panel discussion on cyberbullying. You can read more about that discussion in the pages to come, but it's an issue we'll be addressing this year in states across the country.
We have much more to do in the months ahead. But we need your continued support to tackle these important issues and bring resources into the hands of lawmakers, parents and educators nationwide. So please consider donating today. From all of us at Stop Child Predators, thank you for your support and friendship. We wish you a very Happy New Year.
As always, if you have any questions or comments you would like to share, you can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Cell Phone Users Getting Younger
Lawmakers, law enforcement call on parents to utilize safeguards for cell phones and Internet
Cell phones can be a wonderful safety tool for your child. They allow children to call or text parents when they might be late coming home, or in case they need help of any kind. Some cell phones even have GPS capabilities, allowing parents to know the whereabouts of their kids in real time.
But as with any new technology, potential dangers also exist.
According to a September 2008 study by international research firm Harris Interactive, approximately 79 percent of teenagers aged 13 to 19 have mobile devices. Research firm iGR found in 2007 that a "significant percentage" of 5 to 9 year-olds also have cell phones.
And while safety is the number one reason parents give for why they add their kids and teens to the family cell phone plan, research shows a steadily increasing percentage of children are using cell phones for their own entertainment and socializing. Meaning, parents, that kids aren't just using their phones for talking. They access the Internet. They send text messages. They instant message. They play music. They play games. They take pictures and videos. But alarmingly, they also receive unsolicited messages and pictures.
This new phenomenon prompted Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott to call on parents to utilize tools that can help protect young mobile telephone users from harmful content and child predators. "By implementing parental controls and learning more about the potential dangers facing young cell phone users, well-informed parents can help keep their children safe. As increasingly sophisticated criminals use new technology to communicate with potential victims, parents and law enforcement must harness all available resources to ensure children are protected," said Abbott.
Stop Child Predators voiced a similar message during various summits it hosted this past fall designed to foster an open dialogue between law enforcement, social services, school organizations and parents regarding Internet and wireless safety, child sexual abuse and abduction.
For example, Tampa police Detective Skyp McCaughey told the Tampa audience that she worked a case in which a local 11-year-old girl told her that the man in Maryland she talked to on her cell phone was so nice that he couldn't be a pervert. Yet, he was a sex offender who struck up such a rapport with the girl through their cell phone conversations that she gave him the password to her home computer and spoke to him every night at midnight, McCaughey said.
The Tampa summit, held at the Hillsborough County Department of Children's Services, featured a panel of child safety experts and community organization representatives, including Stacie Rumenap of Stop Child Predators, Lieutenant Michael Baute of the Attorney General's CyberCrime Unit, and Detective Skyp McCaughey of the Tampa Police Department's Family Violence/Sex Crimes Division. Participants and panelists focused their discussion on the dangers children face in the digital world and how communities and families can best be educated about these threats.
Parents mindful of their children's Internet and cell phone use need to keep up with emerging technologies, experts agreed, and implement parental controls on their child's wireless communications devices, just as they do on home computers. They offered additional tips including:
- Limit the features on your child's cell phone, such as unlimited long distance, instant messaging, chat rooms and Internet access. Cell-phone providers also can help restrict which numbers your child calls.
- Caution children against responding to text messages from numbers they don't recognize. Predators send random messages to see who responds.
- Don't post the cell phone number in a public place, such as on YouTube or a MySpace page.
- Warn teens against sending raunchy photos as jokes or as love notes. When a relationship disintegrates, those pictures can be sent maliciously elsewhere.
- Look at the photos and messages on your child's phone, social networking sites and blogs regularly. Know who they're talking to and what they're saying.
- Learn teen speak. Abbreviations like POS can stand for "Parent Over Shoulder." Visit the NetSmartz website to see a dictionary of online abbreviations and other safety tips published by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
And while parents need to be vigilant about digital safety, somewhat surprisingly, not all evidence points to predators purposely misleading kids on the Internet; in some cases, they can be shockingly open about their identity and desires. A 2008 study by the University of New Hampshire Crimes Against Children Research Center found that adult offenders usually made no effort to deceive their victims about their real age or their interest in a sexual relationship. Only five percent lied about their age in order to pose as a minor, and 80 percent freely revealed their sexual desires, according to the study. The authors say that Internet sex crimes involving adults and minors are more often cases of statutory rape than forcible sexual assault, that these adults often develop relationships with the minor and then openly seduce him or her. "This is a serious problem, but one that requires different approaches from current prevention messages emphasizing parental control and the dangers of divulging personal information," the authors said. "Developmentally appropriate prevention strategies that target youth directly and focus on healthy sexual development and avoiding victimization are needed. These should provide younger adolescents with awareness and avoidance skills, while educating older youth about the pitfalls of relationships with adults and their criminal nature."
Not surprisingly, most of the kids studied were at-risk youth looking for the understanding and sometimes the love they weren't finding at home. As is often the case, when parents aren't around or involved, some kids will look elsewhere for acceptance.
Regardless, because of the potential dangers posed by online predators, state lawmakers in at least a dozen states are reviewing current sex offender registration laws and are considering proposals this year that would require sex offenders to register their email addresses, mobile telephone numbers, social networking aliases and other electronic identification information.
IN THE STATES
Council of State Governments Celebrates 75th Anniversary in Omaha
Stop Child Predators attends annual conference
Stop Child Predators Executive Director Stacie Rumenap joined state lawmakers and policy experts for the Technology Working Group during the 75th annual meeting of the Council of State Governments (CSG) in Omaha, NE. The group met to discuss continued efforts to identify effective tools and technologies to create a safer environment on the Internet, especially for youth.
The Technology Working Group is comprised of state officials, private sector members and representative of technology-related associations. It is chaired by State Representatives Michael Murphy of Indiana and Blair Thoreson of North Dakota. In Omaha, David Jent, Indiana University's associate vice president for networks, presented the group with an introduction to the growing prominence of Internet2, a non-profit partnership between academia and industry and government leaders, which has quickly become the foremost advanced networking consortium in the U.S. The working group also voted on several pieces of suggested state legislation, CSG's model bills for state lawmakers. Among the model legislation was "Pursue and Control Child Predators," a bill endorsed by Stop Child Predators and designed to create a comprehensive approach to empowering parents, protecting children and pursuing and controlling child predators on the Internet. The bill contains nine sections modeled on existing state laws that have passed in various states since 2006. Stop Child Predators began advocating for the bill last year and will continue doing so this legislative session.
INTERNET SAFETY IN THE DIGITAL AGE
Lawmakers Push to Curb Cyberbullying
Bullying is a sad fact of life for many children, and unfortunately, bullies aren't confined to the school playground anymore. They've gone high-tech and are now online. Cyberbullies, as they're called, hide behind the relative anonymity of the Internet to intimidate, insult and harass others online, without much fear of consequence. Yet experts who study the issue say this modern incarnation of bullying can be more damaging to victims than traditional tactics like fist fights and classroom taunts.
In perhaps the most notorious cyberbullying case, 49-year-old Lori Drew was recently convicted in connection with her now-infamous decision to pose as a teenage boy on MySpace in order to woo and then rebuff Megan Meier, a troubled 13-year-old girl from Missouri who later hanged herself in her bedroom closet after receiving cruel messages from the fake teenager, including one saying the world would be better off without her.
Missouri officials didn't file charges against Ms. Drew because they weren't able to find any statutes that pertained to the case. Federal prosecutors in Los Angeles, however, charged Ms. Drew with defrauding Beverly Hills-based MySpace by providing false information to the website.
The case continues to draw attention, as a jury acquitted Ms. Drew of three felony counts of computer hackingreportedly because they couldn't agree that the unauthorized access was committed with the express intent of harming Megan Meier. Jurors did find Ms. Drew guilty, though, of three misdemeanor counts of unauthorized access to MySpace, minus the intent to commit harm. The jury deadlocked on a felony conspiracy charge.
With regard to the felony computer hacking charges accusing Ms. Drew of obtaining illegal access to MySpace's computers, the jury would have had to find that she knowingly violated the MySpace terms of agreement, and did so in order to cause harm to Megan Meier. Conviction on those charges could have resulted in a federal prison sentence of as much as 20 years for Ms. Drew.
The jurors instead convicted Ms. Drew on three lesser misdemeanor charges for simply accessing MySpace's computer system under false pretenses to obtain information about and from 13-year-old Megan.
The jury foreman in the case has said that jurors weren't allowed to take into account the last message sent to Megan Meier because the message was sent by instant messaging through America Online (AOL), according to press reports. And the AOL message would not have been covered by MySpace's terms of service, which were at the core of the case against Ms. Drew.
On January 8th, District Judge George Wu held a supplemental hearing to consider arguments for and against letting the jury verdict stand, after lawyers for Ms. Drew submitted a written motion to dismiss. The final outcome of that hearing is pending; Ms. Drew is currently scheduled to be sentenced on April 30th.
This is certainly a tragic story, but perhaps even more alarming is that the majority of cyberbullies are kids themselves, not 49-year-old adults. Tales of cyberbullying crimes are cropping up around the country as more children and teenagers wage war with one another on computers and cell phones. Child advocates are quickly learning that the newest threat is the everyday harm kids inflict on one another in chat rooms, social networking sites, virtual worlds and text messages. In fact, more than half of American teens are affected by cyberbullying, according to the National Crime Prevention Council. Yet most parents are largely unaware of the problem, as very few teens report incidences of bullying to their parents or other adults.
As stories like Megan Meier's capture the interest of the media and the hearts of parents nationwide, lawmakers have begun to pass laws aimed at stemming the rising tide of "peer-to-peer" harassment and threats that is taking place on the web. Legislators, educators and child advocates agree on the need for guidelines outlining how to prevent and punish cyberbullying. They say the behavior has gone unchecked for years, with few existing laws or policies on the books explaining how to stop or remedy it.
Cyberbullying was on the agenda at the December meeting of the American Legislative Exchange Council in Washington, DC. Stop Child Predators' executive director Stacie Rumenap joined a three-person panel discussion where she informed participants that most of the laws currently being considered in the states are aimed at requiring school districts to develop policies on cyberbullying and to include cyberbullying in their anti-harassment policies. Thirteen states have passed such laws and more are considering similar measures this legislative session, she said.
At first glance, this solution may seem reasonable, which is probably why so many politicians have latched onto it. But Rumenap cautioned conference participants that big headlines don't necessarily translate into a safer Internet, and lawmakers need to be sensitive to the risks of legislating free speech and placing the entire policing burden on school districts. She added that lawmakers may also find it difficult to legislate social normsafter all, school districts alone can't be held responsible for enforcing penalties for bad behavior. Not to mention, how much authority do schools have to monitor, regulate and punish activities occurring off school property, the domain in which cyberbullying most often occurs?
Experience and common sense suggest that education and good old-fashioned parenting are far better approaches than regulating free speech and social norms. Yet, when name-calling and taunting cross the line and become harassment and intimidation, authorities must step in with tough penalties, not just a school policy that forbids the practice. After all, the effects of cyberbullying can be serious. Victims can become withdrawn, avoid friends and want to skip school altogether. In extreme cases, victims become depressed and may even consider or attempt suicide.
We owe it to our kids to teach them online safety, and it's just as important for parents to learn the risks of the Internet in order to help their family have a safe and secure online experience. Stop Child Predators applauds state lawmakers and educators for focusing on the growing issue of cyberbullying. We look forward to working in 2009 with parents, teachers, and legislators to craft pragmatic solutions that balance a desire to protect free speech with an understanding of the necessity of protecting children from online harassment.
Cybersquatting, the practice of setting up a website using a trademarked name and then profiting by selling the name to the trademark owner, was barred in the United States in 1999. But the number of such incidents began to rise again in 2004 and surged to a record high in 2007, according to the watchdog group World Intellectual Property Organization.
While anyone can register domain names for a nominal fee, cybersquatters claim popular domain names with the express intention of selling them at a profit when the real owners of the names knock on their doors.
And while there are groups that provide a framework for brand owners to protect themselves from illegal trademark infringement, Stop Child Predators is reviewing the issue to ensure that anti-cybersquatting efforts are also underway to make the Internet a safer and less confusing place for children. After all, 96 percent of all teenagers are online in some capacity. Studies show that children are going online at younger and younger ages. In fact, the fastest-growing segment of Internet users is now pre-schoolers. Many kids use the Internet at school by the time they are six years old, and kids as young as four and five are also surfing the net, as websites like Webkinz.com appeal to young users.
In a famous example, when the website whitehouse.com was originally launched in 1997, it was an adult and political entertainment website, and not, as many unsuspecting users might have guessed, an informational resource about the residence of the U.S. president. The site was originally created by Ransom Scott as a place where uncensored discussion of government policies could occur; later, adult content was added to make it more profitable. The adult content has since been eradicated.
Part of the controversy about whitehouse.com was that usersespecially minorswishing to visit the official website of the White House (www.whitehouse.gov) could all too easily end up at the adult website by mistake. Although .gov as a top-level domain name, is available only to official government sites in the United States, .com is a much more web address extension, and is frequently entered by mistake. In addition, many web browsers automatically add ".com" to the end of an address if no suffix is entered by the user, so simply typing "whitehouse" into the address bar would lead one to whitehouse.com. Because of the explicit and commercial content of the site, whitehouse.com was frequently cited as one of the most egregious examples of domain name misuse, up until the domain was sold.
The website whitehouse.org, a humor site that satirizes the U.S. president, remains controversial for similar reasons, although less so because its content is usually much less explicit. In both case, however, the lesson is clear: domain names are not always a reliable clue about the content of websites, and can easily be exploited to mislead users. This prospect becomes all the more alarming when coupled with the knowledge that more and more kids are now using the Internet.
Stop Child Predators will be closely monitoring this issue in the months ahead.
For more information concerning the initiatives in your state, or if you would like Stop Child Predators' assistance in drafting, testifying for, or supporting legislation in your state, please visit our website at http://www.stopchildpredators.org and/or call us at (202) 234-0090.