INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Registered sex offenders who have been banned from social networking websites are fighting back in the nation's courts, successfully challenging many of the restrictions as infringements on free speech and their right to participate in common online discussions.
The legal battles pit public outrage over sex crimes against cherished guarantees of individual freedom and the far-reaching communication changes brought by Facebook, LinkedIn and dozens of other sites.
"It's going to be really, really hard, I think, to write something that will achieve the state's purpose in protecting children online but not be restrictive enough to be unconstitutional," said Carolyn Atwell-Davis, director of legislative affairs at the Virginia-based National Center for Missing & Exploited Children.
Courts have long allowed states to place restrictions on convicted sex offenders who have completed their sentences, controlling where many of them live and work and requiring them to register with police. But the increasing use of social networks for everyday communication raises new, untested issues.
The bans generally forbid offenders to join social networks or chat rooms or use instant-messaging programs — just a few of the online tools that civil liberties advocates say have become virtually indispensable to free speech.
After hearing challenges, federal judges in two states threw out laws or parts of laws that they deemed too stringent. In Nebraska, the decision allowed sex offenders to join social networks. And in Louisiana, a new law lets offenders use the Internet for shopping, reading news and exchanging email. A case filed against Indiana's law is under review.
Authorities insist the bans address a real problem: the need to protect children from pedophiles who prowl online hangouts visited by kids.
"It's hard to come up with an example of a sexual predator who doesn't use some form of social networking anymore," said Steve DeBrota, an assistant U.S. attorney in Indianapolis who prosecutes child sex crimes.
Ruthann Robson, a professor of constitutional law at the City University of New York, said the bans could eventually be taken up by the Supreme Court if the justices decide there's a constitutional question.
"If we think that the government can curtail sex offenders' rights without any connection to the actual crime, then it could become a blanket prohibition against anyone who is accused of a crime, no matter what the crime is," Robson said.
Supporters of the bans say they target repeat offenders such as a Maryland man charged with extorting a 16-year-old girl Indiana girl to perform sexual acts during video chats. He was free on bond when he was accused of doing the same thing to more underage girls.
Trevor J. Shea, 21, of Mechanicsville, Md., was sentenced to 33 years in federal prison in January after pleading guilty to seven counts of production of child pornography.
Xavier Von Erck, founder of Perverted Justice Inc., a group devoted to exposing online sexual predators, said it doesn't make sense for judges to let pedophiles troll the Web for more victims but revoke the voting rights of people convicted of lesser crimes. He called that "judicial hypocrisy."
The American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana, which is challenging Indiana's 2008 law, argues that it's unconstitutional to bar sex offenders who are no longer in prison or on probation from using basic online services.
"To broadly prohibit such a large group of persons from ever using these modern forms of communication is just something the First Amendment cannot tolerate," said Ken Falk, legal director of Indiana's ACLU chapter.
The case is scheduled for a court hearing Thursday. The main plaintiff, referred to in the suit only as "John Doe," was convicted on two counts of child exploitation in 2000 and released from prison in 2003, according to federal court documents.
The man cannot send questions to televised debates or comment on news stories on local websites because doing so requires a Facebook account, the ACLU contends. Neither can he communicate with his out-of-state family members using the social network or post his business profile on LinkedIn.
The plaintiff is also forbidden to supervise his teenage son's Internet use or investigate questionable friend requests sent to his child, the ACLU claims.
Prosecutors argue that social networking sites aren't the only forms of communication.
"The fact is that telephones still work. People including registered sex offenders may still congregate, discuss, debate and even demonstrate," Indiana Deputy Attorney General David Arthur wrote in a brief.
Television and radio are still widespread and offer numerous call-in shows. Newspapers still accept letters to the editor, he added.
The ACLU says precedent is on its side. The lawsuit cites a February ruling in Louisiana in which U.S. District Judge Brian Jackson found that the state's prohibition was too broad and "unreasonably restricts many ordinary activities that have become important to everyday life."
Louisiana lawmakers passed a new law this month that more narrowly defines what sites are prohibited. News and government sites, email services and online shopping are excluded from the new rules, as are photo-sharing and instant-messaging systems. The measure takes effect Aug. 1.
But courts continue to wrestle with the issue in Indiana and Nebraska, where a federal judge in 2009 blocked part of a law that included a social networking ban. A second legal challenge by an Omaha-area sex offender is set for trial in July.
"I think policymakers are struggling to come up with the right policy that makes sense," Atwell-Davis said. "There's no silver bullet."
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Certainly the hottest new social network, Pinterest doesn't have all the functions and features of Facebook quite yet -- basically, you're just posting photos to your different boards, which you can categorize by interest or hobby or whatever. You can also follow your friends' boards and comment on their pins. And that's it. Pinterest is a simple, visual concept that has a huge, vibrant community of active users. It <a href="http://techcrunch.com/2012/02/07/pinterest-monthly-uniques/" target="_hplink">hit 10 million users faster</a> than any other social network and is now the <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/04/06/pinterest-traffic-growth_n_1408088.html" target="_hplink">third most popular social network</a> in America, trailing only Facebook and Twitter. <br> <br> You can <a href="http://pinterest.com/" target="_hplink">request an invitation to join Pinterest here</a>.
Tagged has a remarkably similar arc to Facebook: Also founded in 2004, and also originally tageted at young people, Tagged is now open to everyone and allows you to customize your profile, play games, message friends, post photos, and meet new people. It has more than 300 million users and more than twenty million monthly active users -- not too shabby, and perhaps worth a look if you want a robust Facebook alternative that's not going anywhere. To see what Tagged is all about, check out this video introduction for beginners. You can <a href="http://www.tagged.com/?" target="_hplink">sign up for Tagged here</a>.
Path is one of several new social networks that seeks to improve on Facebook by making the experience more private and personal: Users are limited to 150 friends on the mobile-only service. A user is instructed to only add his or her closest friends, or anyone you'd invite to your birthday party; the average Path user <a href="http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/15/business/path-familyleaf-and-pair-small-by-design-social-networks.html" target="_hplink">has 40 connections</a>. Path is sort of like a daily online journal that you open to your friends: You can post photos and videos using your smartphone's camera, update your location, share what songs you're listening to and more. Path has been praised for its intimate feeling and clean design. For more on this social network and its mission statement, check out the introductory YouTube video. (Ignore the Thai -- it's in English). <br> <br> You must have an iPhone or Android phone to participate in Path; a BlackBerry app is apparently on its way. Path has about a million active users, per a <em>recent <em>New York Times</em> article</em>.
Speaking of intimacy: Pair is a social network in which you can only have one connection, as its name implies. Pair is a sharing service for couples (or really good friends, I suppose), available on Android and iPhone. It takes privacy to the extreme: Pair calls itself a "timeline for just the two of you, where you can post cute video messages and photos that no one else will see." Your significant other may be forcing you to join it any day now. On Pair, you can share photos, videos, location, and to-do lists; you can also play Tic-Tac-Toe with one another and draw sketches in real-time. One of the most precious features of Pair is its "thumbprint" feature, on which you and your partner can virtually press your thumbs together. Like Pair as a whole, you will probably either find this adorable or schmaltzy. Path is available for free <a href="http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/pair/id503663173?mt=8" target="_hplink">in iTunes</a> and <a href="https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.tenthbit.juliet" target="_hplink">the Google Play store</a>.
The number of social networks based on your current location, and your proximity to other users of an mobile application, is on the rise. These "social-location-mobile" (SoLoMo) apps dominated the recent South by Southwest festival, and the app that got the most press was Highlight. Highlight is iPhone only, and the mobile app hooks up with your Facebook and notifies you when you are near a friend, or a friend of a friend, or another Highlight user with similar interests. You can view this person's Highlight profile, and if you're intrigued, you can message that person and perhaps make a new friend or connection. Highlight CEO Paul Davison explains the app to Anderson Cooper in the accompanying YouTube video. Highlight is <a href="http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/highlight/id441534409?mt=8" target="_hplink">available for free in iTunes</a>.
Circle is, like Highlight, an app that tells you who's around you; unlike Highlight, it has a very pleasant design and lots of options for what information you share publicly and who can see you. You sign up for Circle with your Facebook account; the iPhone-only app shows you when Facebook friends are nearby, and also when friends of friends are close. You can choose to toggle on and off public visibility, if you don't want to be visible to friends of friends. Your profile shows your different Facebook networks (your college, high school, hometown, etc.) and you also have a mini-bio with your name, relationship status and interests. All of this can be toggled on and off as well. Circle is available <a href="http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/circle-whos-around-you/id488720081?mt=8" target="_hplink">on iTunes</a>.
Another social location app for your iPhone, Kismet shows you who's around and lets you chat with your nearby neighbors; it also allows users to check in on Foursquare and see which other Kismet users are at their location. Kismet boasts a nice map view, which allows you to see a broad view of other Kismet users around you; there's also an invitation feature that allows you to invite your friends and other users to meet up at a certain place and certain time. You can <a href="http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/kismet/id490929215?mt=8" target="_hplink">download Kismet for iPhone here</a>.
Our final SoLoMo app (and hopefully the last time I will ever have to write "SoLoMo" ever again) is Ban.jo, which differentiates itself by being available for iPhone AND Android AND on the web. Accessibility! Aside from cross-OS availability, Ban.jo is more of the same: See who's currently around you in list or map view, message nearby folks, check in and update LinkedIn, Twitter, Foursquare and Facebook. Ban.jo is also the only one of these apps publicizing the number of users it has: Its press kit claims that Ban.jo has over one million users worldwide in 185 countries. You can download Ban.jo <a href="http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/ban-jo/id417076117" target="_hplink">for the iPhone</a> or <a href="https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.banjo.android" target="_hplink">for Android</a>; you can also <a href="http://app.ban.jo/?__utma=18700074.216795228.1337200636.1337200636.1337200636.1&__utmb=18700074.4.10.1337200636&__utmc=18700074&__utmx=-&__utmz=18700074.1337200636.1.1.utmcsr=google|utmccn=(organic)|utmcmd=organic|utmctr=(not provided)&__utmv=-&__utmk=204321424" target="_hplink">try it out at Ban.jo's website</a>.
Nextdoor is a social network for neighbors and neighborhoods. You join with your home address and are immediately placed into a home neighborhood; all of your connections, and all the content you see in your feed, comes from those that live near you. You don't have to make your address visible to your neighbors, but you do have to verify that you live there with Nextdoor in order to use the site. After you join, using Nextdoor is like a mix of browsing Craigslist and using your community bulletin board. You can find out what's happening in your 'hood and get recommendations for different local businesses and services; there's also a classifieds section for buying and selling. You can check out Nextdoor's pitch in the accompanying video. You can <a href="http://nextdoor.com/" target="_hplink">sign up for Nextdoor for free here</a>.
A mobile app for Android and iPhone, Roamz brings in information from Twitter, Foursquare, Instagram and Facebook to let you know what cool stuff is happening around you -- "where the locals go," it claims. That's the real draw of Roamz. It's a social network where you can post status updates and photos and also get information about the places nearby. Check out a video for the app -- which its creators call "Social Googles for the Real World" -- on the left. You can download Roamz for <a href="http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/roamz/id459343660?mt=8" target="_hplink">free for iPhone</a> or <a href="https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.roamz.app&feature=search_result#?t=W251bGwsMSwxLDEsImNvbS5yb2Ftei5hcHAiXQ.." target="_hplink">for Android</a>.