- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Virginia should establish stiffer sentencing guidelines against sexual predators convicted of hunting down victims on the Internet, and parents must be better educated about the risks their children face in cyberspace, according to a report released by a state task force yesterday.

The Youth Internet Safety Task Force was established by state Attorney General Robert F. McDonnell, who said raising public awareness is the best way to shield unsuspecting children from attacks on the Internet.

“Today your children spend more time online than they do in playgrounds,” said Mr. McDonnell, a father of five. “We need to protect kids in cyberspace by keeping them out of areas frequented by sexual predators.”

There are 25 recommendations in the nearly 100-page report, which was compiled by more than 40 parents, business leaders and law-enforcement officials after six months of study.

“Here in the Internet capital of the world … we must do everything possible to protect the Internet from child pornographers, sexual predators, identity thieves and other criminals,” the report states. “The Internet is the new or last frontier for child predators.”

The report recommends giving law-enforcement officials additional tools to police the “dark side of the Internet.”

The proposals include mandatory minimum prison sentences for producing child pornography or soliciting children online.

For example, someone convicted of producing or financing child pornography now faces one to 10 years in prison. The report recommends raising the penalty to five to 30 years.

“That will significantly bump up the punishment,” Mr. McDonnell said.

The report also includes the proposal of requiring convicted sex offenders to register their online identities with the state to help social networking sites such as MySpace.com to block access to those people. The move would make Virginia the first in the nation to take such action.

The Internet and social-networking sites have skyrocketed in popularity in recent years, giving youngsters a new avenue to meet people worldwide.

However, the sites also have given the estimated 50,000 sexual predators online at any given time a new venue to lure children by posing as a teen.

According to the U.S. Justice Department, one in five children ages 10 to 17 receive an unwanted sexual solicitation online.

The statewide media campaign to raise public awareness is scheduled to begin next month and estimated to cost about $1 million.

Mr. McDonnell said there already has been about $200,000 in private contributions, including $100,000 from AOL.

“This campaign is designed to use offline and online channels to raise the awareness of all parents — not just those who are Internet savvy,” said Charles Curran, AOL’s chief counsel for policy and a task force member. “We need to take a good part of this training offline so that parents who are unfamiliar with Internet technology have the same opportunity to provide a safe Internet experience for their children.”

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