Presently (in Louisiana, at least) sexual offenders are required to register their names, addresses, crimes, and photographs whenever they move near schools, parks, or any place where children might congregate. This process involves direct mail (Louisiana residents will be familiar with the yellow postcards that occasionally appear in mailboxes) and public notice in the newspaper.
The goal of the new Internet bill focuses on extending the notification law online. Already, there are several federal, state, and independent sex offender registries on the web, some of which actually overlay the addresses of convicted offenders on an interactive Google map.
The result of the legislators' efforts was Louisiana House Bill No. 249, and later, Act No. 385. The bill rigorously defined a social networking service as a website whose purpose is:
[S]ocial interaction with other networking website users, which contains profile web pages of the members of the website that include the names of nicknames of such members, that allows photographs and any other personal or personally identifying information to be placed on the profile web pages by such members, and which provides links to other profile web pages on the networking website of friends or associates of such members that can be accessed by other members of visitors to the website.
A networking website provides members of, or visitors to, such website the ability to leave messages or comments on the profile web page that are visible to all or some visitors to the profile web page and may also include a form of electronic mail for members of the networking website."
Even a software engineer would marvel at language that describes Facebook so precisely without actually naming it. This new bill also addressed a serious criticism leveled at the statute previously struck down by the U.S. District Court: Should a user of Craigslist have to announce his or her criminal past, just because he or she wants to buy a cheap sofa? This new proposal specifically excluded sites whose primary purpose is commerce, or the dissemination of news. Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal went on to sign the bill into law.
I spoke by phone with Louisiana State Representative Jeff Thompson, the driving force behind the legislation. He said that this has been a deliberate process of balancing public safety and the First Amendment, while giving the criminal justice system an additional tool in prosecuting the most heinous of crimes. He gave great credit to Facebook's policies already in place: "They don't allow these types of people on their site. If they discover one, they'll get rid of them. I really respect that."
He repeatedly noted that this bill provides for prosecutorial discretion. In other words, should a 15-year-old and a 16-year-old engage in consensual sexual activity -- a so-called "Romeo & Juliet" situation -- they would not have their lives ruined as a result of this law. Likewise, "the types of incidents you might find at Mardi Gras" would not lead to the worst Facebook status update of all time. Said Representative Thompson, "Is this a perfect solution? No. But I'm willing to work with anyone to make it better."