- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 12, 2006

State Attorney General Robert F. McDonnell said yesterday he plans to propose legislation that would make Virginia the first in the nation to require sex offenders to register their e-mail addresses and online names with the state.

Mr. McDonnell said he hopes the measure will help thwart sexual predators from trolling for victims online.

“We require all sex offenders to register their physical and mailing addresses in Virginia, but in the 21st century, it is just as critical that they register any e-mail addresses or [instant messenger] screen names,” Mr. McDonnell said.

Social-networking sites have skyrocketed in popularity in recent years, providing youngsters with a way to meet new friends 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 online.

Mr. McDonnell’s proposal goes along with the efforts of the social-networking Web site MySpace.com, which last week said that it is developing software to cross-reference its 130 million users with databases of registered sex offenders.

“The bottom line is that if we can do a match between the state sex-offender registry and a MySpace account, we can block any sex offender from MySpace and keep the Internet safe for kids,” Mr. McDonnell said.

MySpace officials agreed.

“This legislation is an important recognition that the Internet has become a community as real as any other neighborhood and is in need of similar safeguards,” said Hemanshu Nigam, chief security officer for MySpace.com. “Its passage will be a landmark moment in the history of Internet safety.”

MySpace and other social-networking sites such as Facebook.com have been under pressure from parents, law enforcement and school officials to bar sexual predators from going through the pictures and profiles posted on the networks.

MySpace was thrust into the national spotlight last year after a 17-year-old Virginia Commonwealth University student from Vienna, Va., disappeared and was later found slain in rural Mathews County, Va.

The student, Taylor Behl, posted her photograph and her profile on MySpace and LiveJournal.com. Richmond police used those sites to help investigate Miss Behl’s disappearance.

Also last fall, a 17-year-old Richmond girl disappeared after she met a man on similar Web sites. The man was arrested on charges of luring a minor on the Internet. The girl was not injured.

Mr. McDonnell said it is difficult to pinpoint the number of predators trolling online, but he cited a study by the Alexandria-based National Center for Missing and Exploited Children that says one in seven Internet users between 10 and 17 years old will be sexually solicited online.

Virginia residents now can search the state’s registry for convicted sex offenders by city, county or ZIP code.

Mr. McDonnell said the new plan is not “foolproof” because convicted sex offenders can sign up under a different name and give false biographical information on the sites.

“There are major incentives to accurately provide your real e-mail account information,” he said. “By requiring registration, and by making the penalties for failure to register the same as those for failure to register physical and mailing addresses, we will take another positive step towards protecting children online.”

Convicted sexual predators caught skirting the law would face misdemeanor or felony charges.

The proposal is the byproduct of Mr. McDonnell’s Youth Internet Safety Task Force, which was assigned to develop a plan to protect youngsters while they navigate the Internet. The task force includes school and police officials, lawmakers, parents and Internet companies such as Yahoo and America Online.

The final report and legislative package will be released later this month.

Mr. McDonnell, a Republican, has made fighting sexual predators his No. 1 priority since being elected last year.

Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, a Democrat, has signed a dozen bills aimed at cracking down on sexual offenders.

The package included Jessica’s Law, which imposes a 25-year mandatory minimum prison sentence for violent sexual acts against children under the age of 13. The law is named after Jessica Marie Lunsford, a 9-year-old Florida girl murdered by a convicted sex offender in 2005.

“After we did that, I thought the next frontier was the Internet,” Mr. McDonnell said.

Mr. McDonnell’s latest proposal echoes the U.S. Justice Department’s effort, known as Project Safe Childhood, to prosecute sexual predators and protect children from sexual exploitation.

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