That line quoted by Maude Flanders on The Simpsons when The Springfield Art Museum exhibited Michelangelo’s David, embodies the sentiment behind a little publicized piece of legislation making its way through the halls of Congress. The proposed legislation, dubbed the “Stop the Online Exploitation of Our Children Acts” which is summarized below, serves to expand Megan’s Law to the internet.

Under the proposal, sex offenders would be required to register their
active e-mail address with parole or probation officers. Online
companies, such as social networking sites, would check an e-mail
address of a new member against the offender registry, which would
reveal whether the member was a sex offender.

Not many would disagree that legislation designed to protect children online from sexual predators is a good thing, however as with most rushed legislation there are loopholes and omissions which make it
potentially dangerous if Constitutionally viable. The irrational exuberance of Senators John McCain (R) and Charles Schumer (D) with their new proposed legislation threatens blogs such as this one due to its inability to define social networking.

While it is generally understood that the bill is to help track sex offenders who would use online social networking sites such as MySpace and FaceBook it makes no provision to distinguish from these services from the everyday blog that offers discussion and comment boards. This could open the floodgates for enterprising district attorneys to not only pad their resume, but could also be utilized to stifle free speech. According to a recently posted CNET article, the following individuals or businesses would be required to file reports under the proposed legislation:

any Web site with a message board; any chat room; any social-networking
site; any e-mail service; any instant-messaging service; any Internet
content hosting service; any domain name registration service; any
Internet search service; any electronic communication service; and any
image or video-sharing service.

Should any images or videos posted by individuals on the sex offender registry be ignored or overlooked and not removed, social networking sites and bloggers could face fines up to $300,000.

This provides an outstanding opportunity to assess some of the reasons we think the way we do. Everyday we make irrational decisions based on our biases. Little rules of thumb our brains have developed to simplify the complexity we are faced with everyday. This legislation is largely based on little more than our biases in probability and belief most notably what is known as the availability heuristic and recency effect. Where events that occur most recently are held in the mind and used to make decisions more readily than taking all instances collectively. Think about the last job review you received, do you think your manager weighed equally all of your accomplishments or just those over the past weeks and months.

I’m sure when this bill goes to the Senate floor we will be reminded of instances such as John Mark Carr (Jon Benet Ramsey case), John Couey (murder of Jessica Lunsford) as well as the numerous individuals caught on Dateline’s series To Catch a Predator. Made to think that we are facing an epidemic and that children everywhere are in extreme danger. What we must keep in mind is that while terrible, these instances are the exception and a greater look at the facts and analysis of the legislation is warranted. In the end all we can do is recognize we all have these biases (as well as many others), we all use them and we must decide when it is appropriate to use them and when it is not.

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