The idea that the Internet is filled with sexual predators has received a boost as MySpace has admitted to having found and removed 29,000 registered sex offenders on its site. The admission comes amongst attempts by North Carolina’s Attorney General to change the law so that social networking sites require parental permission when a minor tries to open an account.
While I understand the potential dangers of grooming, and I must admit at being surprised by the large numbers of convicted sexual offenders online, I always take these stories with scepticism. Actual figures are difficult to come by, but it seems like grooming is usually over-estimated. For example, in a period between 2004 and 2005, a study found that the Sexual Offences Act 2003, which was created specifically to tackle online grooming, had been applied only 8 times (with no convictions). While there is danger, I always feel that this issue invokes moral panic rather than actual statistical threat.
I am also rather worried about what seems to be a threat to civil liberties here. Should all convicted sex offenders be banned from all web spaces where they may interact with minors? This is a legitimate regulatory question that has not been answered properly. Actions like that taken by MySpace indicate that industry is prepared to act in order to avoid bad press, which generates a de facto market regulatory response that goes beyond anything required by law. One could argue that those who have been involved in some sort of sexual offence in the past have relinquished their rights to have a normal online presence, just as they have relinquished their right to work with children in other jobs, such as teaching, but should it really?
I believe that if society wishes to place such restrictions, then it should be up to legislators to make it into law instead of relying on fickle market forces.
Update: This story has been quoted in Business Week.