Thunderbolt logo

The lowest-hanging fruit


Recently, New York State’s Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman announced “Operation: Game Over” which saw the online gaming accounts of more than 3,500 convicted sex offenders banned from services such as Xbox Live. Using a database of email addresses and online aliases of registered sex offenders, the state partnered with companies such as Microsoft, Sony, Blizzard and others to remove accounts in an effort to protect children from being preyed upon. Though only 3,850 individuals were barred from these online services, the precedent set will keep most registered sex offenders in New York from ever playing videogames online.

New York State’s sex offender registration operates on a tiered system. Level 1 offenders are categorized as having a low risk of repeating their crimes and the 13,000 individuals who make up this tier are required to register with the state for 20 years. Level 2 and Level 3 offenders are categorized as having a moderate to likely chance of repeating their crimes (respectively) and the 20,000 individuals who make up these two tiers are required to register as sex offenders for the remainder of their lives. The state places limitations on where registered sex offenders can live and work. Additionally, the state monitors the online activity of registered sex offenders, limiting access to various websites and blocking access to social networking sites, as the state fears these individuals will use these services to connect with future victims.

In the press release accompanying the announcement, Attorney General Schneiderman thanked the companies that took part in the effort. “We must ensure online video game systems do not become a digital playground for dangerous predators,” he said in the statement. “This means doing everything possible to block sex offenders from using gaming networks as a vehicle to prey on underage victims.”

The press release highlights the conviction of Richard Kretovic, a 19-year-old man from Greece, NY who plead guilty to sexually abusing a 12-year-old, as the motivation for the ban. Kretovic used Xbox Live to lure the child to his home and had more than one encounter with the child before the victim’s parents called the police.

But Kretovic was not a registered sex offender when the abuse took place. In New York State there has yet to be one case where a registered sex offender used an online game to connect with and sexually abuse a new victim. Using Kretovic’s crime as a basis to blanket ban 3,850 individuals that are otherwise following the rules of their probation is an easy response to a difficult situation with few easy solutions. It is easy in the sense that it only marginalizes a group of individuals that few in society care about and it demonstrates action to voting constituencies that matter. Since sexual abuse cases are felonies in New York and the state bars individuals from voting if they’ve been convicted of a felony and are still on probation, there is no fear amongst political leaders of reprisal for choosing harsher and harsher penalties for sex offenders. It’s a win-win for politicians.

While the exact number of individuals banned on each particular network is unavailable, let’s assume that all 3,850 accounts were Xbox Live memberships. Xbox Live claims to have over 40,000,000 accounts. The odds then of a single user actually encountering one of New York State’s sex offenders on Xbox Live are less than .01%. The census bureau pegs New York’s total population at about 19,500,000, so in reality residents have a statistically better chance of encountering a videogame playing sex offender in real life than they do through Xbox Live.

It is difficult to blame the companies that took part in the online purge. As the Xbox Live Terms of Use do not ban individuals convicted of crimes from using the service, the Attorney General’s office put Microsoft and the other companies involved in an awkward situation. Either ban consumers who have otherwise broken no rules or risk having your network being labeled – by one of the largest states in the country – as a home to sex offenders. With thousands of jobs on the line, the course of action is obvious and understandable.

Without taking the responsibility of any sexual offense out of the hands of the sex offender, the fact is that everything discussed here – from Kretovic’s abuse to the recent banning – could have been avoided with increased parental supervision. While online services can be easily taken away from registered sex offender, they also offers parents the luxury of seeing the online activity of their children. The press release accompanying Schneiderman’s announcement cited the Kretovic case as the inspiration for this “purging” of accounts, yet it fails to mention the lack of awareness of the parents who were oblivious to their child engaging with a pedophile for three months, not to mention any other unknown online activity. Glancing at their child’s Xbox Live account every now and again would likely have prevented any victimization. This lack of responsibility has instead led to nearly 4,000 individuals being stripped of access to their favorite online videgames, despite committing no crimes through these means.

While the press release does mention that most gaming consoles offer parental controls that can limit a child’s ability to communicate with others online, it simultaneously excuses parents who’ve failed to set them because they were likely ignorant that they existed. Claiming ignorance of laws is not a valid excuse if you break them and that same logic should apply here. If adults have made the decision that they are going to raise a child, then they need to be the first line of defense against individuals like Kretovic. Regardless of how many restrictions we place on sexual offenders, they will always exist in society, registered and unregistered, forever. Taking a minuscule amount of time and figuring out how your child’s Xbox works may prevent them from being sexually abused. That’s not much work for a very good payoff. It’s like going to work for an hour and getting paid a million dollars.

New York has done the easy thing and penalized individuals that they can easily abuse instead of taking the harder stance. With limited spending, New York could have created a public service campaign to help educate parents on how to set parental controls for online-capable gaming platforms. Instead, New York chose a course of action that has no cost and simultaneously no value. Loathe them as we may, no registered sexual offenders in New York have demonstrated impropriety in regards to their online gaming habits and yet they have been barred, for 20 years to life, from going online and playing Call of Duty or World of Warcraft. Instead of establishing a precedent that holds parents accountable for what their kids do online, the state simply picked the lowest-hanging fruit, simultaneously giving inattentive parents a false sense of security and further marginalizing society’s most derided individuals.

The author of this fine article

is an Associate Editor at Thunderbolt, having joined in February 2003.

Gentle persuasion

You should check out our podcast.