Should registered sex offenders be identified in social networks?
In October of last year, 17-year-old British teenager Ashleigh Hall ‘met’ a young, handsome teen named Pete Cartwright on Facebook. They struck up a friendship and made plans to get together on October 25th. Ashleigh told her mom she was going to stay with a friend, but instead went off to meet her Facebook friend for the very first time. At least, she thought she was meeting Pete Cartwright. Turns out she was really meeting Peter Chapman, a 33-year-old convicted rapist.
Chapman raped and killed her, before dumping her body in a gully, close to Old Stockton Road near Sedgefield. He was arrested the following day.
Following his sentencing, Ashleigh’s mother, Andrea Hall branded the 33-year-old murderer “inhuman” and called for closer monitoring of sex offenders.
Appearing on ITV’s This Morning, Mrs Hall said authorities should reveal where sex offenders live.
Here in the U.S., we can find out where registered sex offenders are living with a couple of clicks on Family Watchdog. Type in an address or city/state and you instantly get a map showing the name, picture and location of registered offenders. You see their proximity to schools and parks, their convictions, any aliases and even sign up for alerts. It is incredibly easy to find out if sex offenders are in our neighborhoods. These days, though, we don’t just live in suburbs and cities; we also live online. We can find out if registered sexual offenders are in our neighborhoods, but what about on our social networks?
The Liberal Democrats & home affairs spokesman, Chris Huhne, criticised Facebook for not adding a panic button, created by the Home Office & Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre, to its site. Ceop says the button, a large graphic which once installed features prominently on each profile page and gives internet safety advice, should be added to all social networking websites. Its chief executive, Jim Gamble, said it was “beyond logic” that Facebook and MySpace have not joined.
Facebook released a statement addressing Huhne’s criticism:
“What is clear is that Peter Chapman was a twisted, determined individual with an evil agenda who used every online and offline opportunity to meet people. This case serves as a painful reminder that all internet users must use extreme caution when contacted over the internet by people they do not know.”
“We echo the advice of the police, who urge people not to meet anyone they have been contacted by online unless they know for certain who they are, as there are unscrupulous people in the world with malevolent agendas.”
According to a report in The Guardian, Chapman was just 15 when he was first the subject of several sexual assault investigations. At 19 he was sentenced to seven years in prison for raping two prostitutes, and was released in 2001. Several months before Ashleigh’s murder, convicted rapist Peter Chapman fell through the cracks.
Merseyside police, who should have been monitoring Chapman, today referred itself to the Independent Police Complaints Commission. The force acted after revelations that it waited nine months before issuing a national wanted alert for Chapman, after realising last year that he had vanished from his home.
This begs the question: if we can’t properly track registered sex offenders in the real world, how can we possibly track them in a digital world where it’s even easier to hide? Even if there was a solid technical solution (there isn’t), someone would surely find a loophole or hack. There is momentum, though, for a proposal to remove sex offenders from social networking sites.
State Rep. Rob Teilhet is introducing a measure Tuesday that would allow the Georgia Bureau of Investigation to send sex offenders’ information to Facebook, MySpace and other sites.
The sites could then remove their information, ban them from creating profiles and notify state authorities of any suspicious activity.
A similar proposal has already been adopted in New York and others are being considered in California and Oklahoma.
In Illinois, as of January 1, 2010 it is now a felony for registered sex offenders to join social networking sites. Should all sex offenders be prohibited from joining social networks? What about those who have served their time, who are now living their lives as proper citizens — should they be identified in some way if allowed to participate in a digital social circle?
In Ashleigh’s case, there very well could have been a different ending if Peter Chapman was not allowed to join Facebook. Or, Peter Chapman would have found another way to get on Facebook and prey on teenage girls.
There are some things we do know:
- Digital media easily allows anyone to create a persona, a veil of anonymity.
- It’s unlikely a panic button would have saved Ashleigh’s life.
- Facebook does offer several ways to alter privacy settings and block users.
- Parents need to be involved with their children’s online education and behavior.
- Authorities need to take responsibility for more vigilant monitoring of sex offenders.
- Ultimately, we still make choices about who we communicate with and in what manner.
Yesterday Peter Chapman was sentenced to life in prison for killing Ashleigh Hall. At least we know where he’ll be for a good long time.