The congressional-page scandal has exposed what some politicians and investigators say are weaknesses in the nation's online-predator laws and has brought demands for stronger measures to catch and punish adults who try to seduce young people over the Internet.
"It's unfortunate that it takes media attention on a case like this to bring to light these flaws in state child-protection laws," said Carolyn Atwell-Davis, director of legislative affairs at the National Center for Exploited and Missing Children.
Most states have laws prohibiting adults from soliciting minors via computer for sex. In some states, engaging in sex talk with a minor is not in itself a crime; the sender must intend to engage a child physically. And in some states, erotic conversation over the Internet with young people 16 or older is not against the law.
Rep. Mark Foley abruptly resigned last month after the Florida Republican was accused of sending lurid e-mails and instant messages to teenage boys who worked as pages on Capitol Hill.
Under Florida law, Foley may have committed a crime if he seduced or tried to seduce a minor. But the term "seduce" is open to interpretation, according to the Florida attorney general's office. The former congressman could face federal charges if the evidence suggests he exchanged messages across state lines in an attempt to get pages under the age of consent to meet him for sex. Prosecutors would not necessarily have to prove such a meeting occurred.
In Minnesota, it is against the law for an adult to solicit someone 15 or under for sex. State Rep. Jeff Johnson, a Republican candidate for attorney general, said the law should protect 16- and 17-year-olds, too.
"It absolutely should be illegal for an adult to be sending sexually explicit e-mails or instant messages to a kid," Johnson said.
Just days after the page scandal broke, two top public officials in Texas proposed tougher penalties for adults caught sending sexually explicit messages to minors or soliciting them online.
In New Hampshire, Gov. John Lynch called for longer sentences and a special prosecutor for sexual predators who use the Internet.
In New Jersey, Senate President Richard J. Codey wants to cut off Internet access for people who used a computer to commit a previous sex crime. "Their presence has infected the Internet like an out-of-control computer virus," Codey said.
California recently passed a law making it easier for police to arrest those bent on luring children into a sexual encounter using the Internet. Previously, suspects had to attempt to meet with a child before they could be arrested. But GOP state Assemblyman Todd Spitzer said it would be difficult to go much further.
"I think speech, no matter how reprehensible or despicable, may be protected," said Spitzer, a former prosecutor.
Roughly 25 million U.S. youths ages 10 to 17 are regular Internet users, according to Census Bureau figures analyzed by the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire. Last year, the center surveyed 1,500 youth users. Thirteen percent said they received a sexual solicitation and 34 percent said they had unwanted exposure to sexual material.
The National Center for Exploited and Missing Children runs a tip line to track cases of online enticement of children and incidents in which they receive unsolicited obscene material. In 2005, the tip line recorded nearly 3,300 incidents.
Atwell-Davis recommended that all states adopt laws making it illegal for adults to send salacious messages to anyone under 18. (The boys involved in the Foley case were all said to be at least 16 at the time.)
Flint Waters, who leads a Wyoming task force on Internet crimes against children, said his small team is getting five to 10 cases every week — and disposing of one, if they are lucky. "I'm just falling behind at an amazing rate," he said.
He said he wishes Wyoming and other states, or the federal government, would follow Colorado's lead and require Internet service providers to preserve certain customer records for as long as six months. Waters said the records are key to following the forensic trail and obtaining convictions.
"We're not asking for content," Waters said. "We just need them to be able to tell us who was getting on the Internet from their on-ramp at that moment so we can pursue our case."