The Stop Online Expression Act

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 is yet another bill, in a long line dating back to the Communications Decency Act and the Child Online Protection Act, that attempts to curtail free expression online by raising the specter of child abuse. First proposed at the end of last session, the bill is the brainchild of Sens. John McCain and Charles Schumer.

Leaked drafts of the Stop Online Exploitation of Our Children Act read like a speech squasher's gift list. The bill requires the government to create a list containing the e-mail 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 e-mails from this list. If they find a match, publishers must delete the accounts associated with the offending e-mail address -- as well as anything the owner 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. In practice this will probably mean that sites offering community forums, such as AlterNet and even Slashdot, 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 e-mail 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 e-mail 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 he or she has 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.

4. It sets a bad precedent by asking untrained citizens to report on one another. Certain groups, such as doctors and therapists, are required by law to report if one of their clients is a danger to him- or 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 one another is not going to prevent crime. It's only going to spark prejudice and lead to greater social injustice.

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.

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