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Although Congress is taking steps to protect children on the Internet, there is more work to be done. A recent report indicates that children often remain subject to sexual solicitations, sexual material and threatening and offensive behavior in cyberspace. CONGRESSIONAL ACTION To date, Congress has passed the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA). In a nutshell, COPPA requires Web sites to obtain verifiable parental consent before personally identifiable information can be collected from children under the age of 13. This month, the House Judiciary Committee on Crime approved a bill that would give federal law enforcement officials greater power to track pedophiles who prey on children on the Internet. The “Child Sex Crimes Wiretapping Act of 2001,” which has been approved by a voice vote, broadens the ability of law enforcement to tap phone lines of suspected sexual predators who seek to entice children while on the Internet. The bill specifies several cyber-predicate crimes that officials can point to when seeking federal court permission to wiretap the phone of a suspected child predator. At this point, it is too early to say whether this bill ultimately will be signed into law. THE HARSH REALITY At the request of Congress, the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC) and the University of New Hampshire conducted a study regarding threats posed by online predators and inappropriate content in cyberspace. After conducting a fairly comprehensive survey, the NCMEC released a report entitled “Online Victimization: A Report on the Nation’s Youth.” The results are not pretty. As a starting point, it is important to keep in mind that millions of American children use the Internet for various purposes. Of the representative sample of children between the ages of 10 and 17 who use the Internet on a regular basis, the following statistics emerge: – About one in five received an online sexual solicitation or approach in the past year. One in 33 received an aggressive sexual solicitation, meaning that the child was asked to meet, was called on the phone, or received mail or gifts. When this aggressive solicitation occurred, 36 percent of children were very or extremely upset and 25 percent were extremely afraid. – Approximately one in four children in the past year were subject to unwanted exposure to photos of people having sex or of naked people. This was true even though about one-third of households reported using Internet blocking software. Of children so exposed, 23 percent were very or extremely upset, 20 percent were very or extremely embarrassed, and 20 percent reported at least one symptom of stress. – About one in 17 children had been threatened or harassed on the Internet, including threats of harm to the child, friends, and family. Of those children so threatened, 31 percent were very or extremely upset, 19 percent were very or extremely afraid, 18 percent were very or extremely embarrassed, and almost one-third, 32 percent, had at least one symptom of stress. – Law enforcement authorities received reports of less than 10 percent of sexual solicitations and only about 3 percent of unwanted exposures. Moreover, only about 17 percent of children and approximately 10 percent of adults could even name a specific authority such as the FBI to whom they could make such reports. GETTING THE JOB DONE Although cyberspace provides children with educational and other favorable benefits, the above statistics are quite troubling. Various non-legal and legal steps should be taken to protect children in the new Internet age. Parents should closely monitor the Internet activities of their children. While it can be a good idea to install software that supposedly blocks out undesirable content, children can still manage to access inappropriate content in cyberspace. Thus, there is no substitute for keeping a watchful eye on children while they are online. One way to monitor children’s activities online is to have the family computer located in a public spot, such as in the living room. Children should be educated about potential perils in cyberspace. Parents should teach their children not to reveal identifying details to Internet strangers and not meet or accept anything from people they meet online. They should know, for example, that someone posing as another child actually could be an adult child molester. Children should also inform their parents of improper Internet contacts. Likewise, parents should be aware of authorities they can contact, such as the FBI and NCMEC’s CyberTipline. Finally, legal solutions to the problem must be considered. Many criminal statutes were enacted long before the popular advent of the Internet. Lawmakers should reexamine these statutes and determine whether existing criminal statutes adequately cover online crime, especially when children are the victims. Any loopholes that allow online criminal predation of children must be closed. Eric J. Sinrod is a partner in the San Francisco office of Duane Morris, where he focuses on technology and litigation matters. His Web site is sinrodlaw.com and his firm’s site is Duane Morris.Mr. Sinrod may be reached by e-mail at [email protected]

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