Sunday, November 21, 2010

Should Myspace Be Responsible for Sex Offenders?

Another essay for English class.  This time in response to a call for Myspace to be more responsible for child predators on their site.
Bob Sullivan - MySpace and sex offenders: What's the problem?

Any issue dealing with children tends to be a sensitive one.  Particularly, if the issue is that of sex offenders attempting to coerce children via Myspace into sex, then it is easy to let emotions cloud judgment.  Many knee-jerk reactions are made in the name of protecting children.  There is a desire to insulate children from all dangers.  However, rarely can risks be completely removed; rather, they must be mitigated.  This means one must be able to recognize when a risk is small enough that any additional attempt to reduce it will have too great a cost for the benefit provided.  Additionally, expecting corporations to voluntarily act in the best interest of children is naïve at best.  Instead, the government should be the one to protect children when needed.  However, ultimately the responsibility to keep children safe is with themselves and their parents.

Corporations' only goal is to bring profits to their shareholders.  Many see this as a negative, but it is simply the certitude of reality.  They will not act in the best interest of anyone other than their shareholders.  On the rare occasion that a corporation appears to do something altruistic, it can usually be explained as an attempt to increase public goodwill.  Just as a corporation is expected to act in the best interest of its shareholders, the government is the organization that should be expected to work in the best interest of the people.  When necessary, the government can force corporations to behave in certain ways to promote a public good.  However, in the case of Myspace and sex offenders, it is not necessary for the government to step in and force Myspace to do anything additional.  Instead, the government should be the one to safeguard the public good here.  The states' attorney generals have the job of investigating violations of parole.  They are the ones that should be investing time and money to make sure that there are not sex offenders breaking the law.

Myspace has already done more than they had to.  They have hired an outside company to search for sex offenders on their network, and removed them.  As stated above though, this move should not be confused for genuine altruism.  Rather, it was undoubtedly an attempt to ensure that parents felt safe letting their children on Myspace.  Even still, it was more than should be expected of a corporation.  They even retained the records so that they could be used as evidence, if need be.  This did not satisfy law enforcement, though.  Bob Sullivan points out that “But the spat likely signals more than concern about deletion of evidence. There is obvious sentiment among law enforcement agencies that MySpace was acting too slowly to remove known sex offenders from the site” (118).  However, if there were known sex offenders on the site, in violation of their parole, they should have simply been arrested.  Their profiles would not have been a concern after that.  Why should it fall to Myspace to investigate possible sex offenders?  That is the very purpose of law enforcement agencies.  Not only is it not Myspace's responsibility, but the law enforcement agencies are not doing much to help Myspace in doing their work for them.  There are over fifty different sex offender databases that Myspace must compile data from.  They expended a considerable amount of time and money cobbling it all together.  This burden would have been eased if the data was supplied to them in a better format.

The issue here is larger than just Myspace, though.  The Internet has brought about an innovative ability to anonymously communicate with anyone that did not exist before.  This new ability is, of course, used for all kinds of purposes, both good and bad.  With the new immoral uses comes new fears.  When confronted with these new problems, people often are confused about how to handle them.  However, more often than not the best solution is the one already in place, just simply adopted for the new threat.

There are many more ways to communicate online than just Myspace.  Email, chat rooms, web forums, and the variety of social networking sites are just a few.  As the web becomes more and more international, more of these sites are administered outside of the United States.  Even if Myspace could be forced into policing its own site for sex offenders, it is impossible to force the nearly limitless other sites to do the same.  Luckily, there are two traditional methods of protecting children from sex offenders that will work fine in this new environment.  First, law enforcement can continue to do its job investigating parole violations by those in their jurisdiction.  Where the offender is outside their jurisdiction, they can inform the local law enforcement and hope they take it from there.  There is little else law enforcement can do.  Second, children should be educated about the risks of meeting someone in real life from the Internet.  In the case of a sex offender attempting to meet a child, the sex offender cannot harm the child until he or she makes the decision to trust them and meet up.  Children need to be made aware of how trivial it is to lie about who one is online.  That lesson is likely to come from parents the same as any other basic safety lesson in a child's life.

Some would argue that Myspace does have a responsibility to keep child predators off its network.  However, relying on a corporation to do good on its own is never a good idea.  The only realistic way Myspace could be expected to do this is if they were forced to via legislation.  This would mean law enforcement would have to expend resources making sure Myspace was doing something the law enforcement agencies should have been doing in the first place.  Additionally, the ease with which a sex offender can create a new identity means that Myspace has little chance to catch any but the most obvious cases.  Instead, parents must educate their children about the dangers that face them online.

While it is tempting to demand someone else be responsible for children's safety, one must be realistic about the priorities of all the involved parties.  No parent should expect a corporation will keep their child safe.  That obligation falls to the parents and the children themselves.  If there is a need for measures above what a parent or child can be expected to provide for themselves, the government exists for exactly that reason.  Law enforcement is better equipped and trained to root out sex offenders on Myspace than Myspace itself.  Additionally, law enforcement has the responsibility to protect the public, whereas, Myspace does not.  It is often difficult to rationally deal with issues involving children's safety.  However, in this case the status quo is adequate.  The only areas that need improvement are law enforcement doing more to catch sex offenders violating their parole, and parents educating their children to all the dangers that await them on the Internet.

Works Cited:
Bob Sullivan, “MySpace and sex offenders: What's the problem?” Elements of Argument (2010):116-119.

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