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Sex Offenders and the Cost of Cheap Pseudonyms

An article over at Ars Technica pointed me to John McCain’s Dec 6 bill requiring sex offenders to register their online identifiers at the federal level:

A copy of the bill’s text obtained by shows that McCain wants to require every “Internet social networking site, chat room, message board, or any other similar service using the Internet” to report suspected child pornography to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

Um, and that’s going to work exactly how?

In 1998, also in Washington, DC, Eric Friedman and Paul Resnick presented an early version of a paper entitled “The Social Cost of Cheap Pseudonyms“.

On the Internet it is easy for someone to obtain a new identity. This introduces opportunities to misbehave without paying reputational consequences. … One might hope for an open society where newcomers are treated well, but there is an inherent social cost in making the spread of reputations optional.

It seems to me that creating new email addresses and IM names, free and instant ones that require no background checks and certainly no prior “reputations” before registration, pretty much does an end-run around this particular bit of “keep our children safe” legislation.

It would be quite impossible to enforce.

Additionally, it puts a burden on the ISP and particular site owners to begin worrying and policing their own users-created content on their networks and forums. Yet another non-starter.

Is this just a bit of posturing? Does McCain really think this will work?

More by Declan McCullagh over at CNET:

“This constitutionally dubious proposal is being made apparently mostly based on fear or political considerations rather than on the facts,” said EFF’s Bankston. Studies by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children show the online sexual solicitation of minors has dropped in the past five years, despite the growth of social-networking services, he said.

A McCain aide, who did not want to be identified by name, said on Friday that the measure was targeted at any Web site that “you’d have to join up or become a member of to use.” No payment would be necessary to qualify, the aide added.

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