Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Mapquest the Bad Guys

Now that children are home for the holidays and playing in parks and on the street more often, it's worth considering how certain features of the Internet allow for the surveillance of community space. Information about local sex offenders in California can now be gotten from the state's Megan's Law website or from the federal version from the Department of Justice. Both sites include close-up color photos of the perpetrators that are cropped like menacing familiar faces cut out of the family album rather than mugshots. They also include the type of crime committed, distinguishing features, and possible aliases. The opening page of both sites brings the visitor to a map. However, the state site contains much more specific information about the person's exact location, to the extent of providing a Mapquest style map with zoom and recentering capability.

As a former employee of the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services, I am well aware of the long-term psychic damage that sexual abuse can do. This causal relationship was just recently re-emphasized in the New York Times profile "Through His Webcam, a Boy Joins a Sordid Online World," about how new intersections of technology and adolescent curiosity can promulgate dehumanizing sexual contracts between unequal parties. And it is true that the offenders that I saw on the state and federal sites seemed to be manifestly scary individuals and potential dangers to their communities, by virtue of the seriousness of their prior crimes.

But I also found myself having several reservations about these incredibly user-friendly sites for locating sexual predators, which I noticed had much better interfaces than most government websites. First, registered sex offenders can include many classes of perpetrators. Arguably, those who have committed computer crimes that only involve downloading illegal pornography without either "live" or "virtual" contact may not deserve the designation, given the relatively victimless nature of the offense. Furthermore, some women involved in protests against the Iraq war or for women's rights issues like breastfeeding in public have been charged with indecent exposure and found themselves fighting the registration requirement. Finally, homosexuality has only recently been decriminalized in some states, since anti-gay statutes were finally ruled unconstitutional by the Rehnquist Supreme Court.

Certainly, the ease of access to exact location information could enable vigilantee justice, even if users are required to click on a button that agrees to certain conditions of use. In my own city, I know of a case where the family members -- including minor children -- were also subject to intimidation by incensed neighbors.

What if there were such user-friendly maps to the homes of abortion providers on anti-abortion websites? Many people consider abortion to be a crime against children that is similarly reprehensible to their communities. The most enraged among them have decided to use armed force against doctors and administrators found by traditional location tools.

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