Carly’s Law won’t threaten your freedom or your lulz
Carly Ryan’s killer had only just begun his life sentence when a person stopped me in the street to ask: “what’s so wrong with lying about your age on the internet?”
It was January 2010. Garry Francis Newman – a balding, overweight paedophile – had been found guilty of Miss Ryan’s 2007 murder. Jurors had been rightly disgusted by the months Newman spent masquerading, online, as a 20-year-old “emo guitarist” named Brandon Kane to win the teenager’s trust and love. Equally appalled, Independent Senator Nick Xenophon had proposed what I’d considered inarguably sensible new legislation. He wanted an eight-year jail term for those who lie about their age, online, to a child. He called it “Carly’s Law”.
“What’s so wrong with lying about your age on the internet?” the passerby asked. There was, they said, no rule requiring you “be yourself” online. And besides, we already had “plenty” of laws police could use to catch paedophiles.
“This is lying to a child for a sick purpose,” I stressed. “We’re talking about pretending you’re a kid to meet up with a kid, or pretending to be a hot young guy when, really, you more closely resemble a gorilla. Why should you have any protection, at all, if you do that?
“And sure we have laws, but what’s the harm in giving police one more? Especially when it would allow cops to act as soon as a predator makes contact, long before a child takes that first step toward meeting their new friend?”
My unexpected debating partner would not be swayed. The internet was, they insisted, the last bastion of freedom of speech. People needed anonymity to speak out without fear of consequence. They feared that, should Parliament pass this law, signing one’s blog with name and postcode was next on the agenda.
I took their views onboard as those of the lone objector. Surely, thought I, the majority would understand the purpose of this law. No one’s looking to ruin your 4Chan fun; we just want to make sure kids aren’t being lured into predators’ traps.
Oh, how wrong I was.
Carly’s Law gained exactly zero traction in Canberra. Xenophon fought hard for it – as did Carly’s mother, Sonya – to no avail. Australia stuck with the laws it’s always had… and Nona Belomesoff was murdered. The country mourned but, the naysayers insisted, two deaths did not a pattern make. Nona’s alleged killers were roughly her age. Carly, sad as it was to say, was a once-off.
Until she wasn’t. Time and again reports surfaced about girls, many of them younger than Carly, being menaced and harassed online. Tricked by older paedophiles lying about their age. A NSW man was arrested and charged with the drowning of an 18-year-old girl. Prosecutors said he, like Newman, had pretended to be younger in order to start a sexual relationship. In 2012, Madeleine (not her real name) told The Advertiser how she’d been stalked, with increasing aggression, by an older man posing as “Brad”. Things had been safe – albeit flirtatious – until the teenager upset him by getting a body piercing. His response was chilling.
I’m the Enforcer, looking for more girls to torture,” he wrote. “I have always hated girls my whole life, when I’m nice it’s the exception not the rule. Thanks for showing me that it’s natural for me.
What’s wrong with lying about your age online to a child? Everything.
I’ve been an internet denizen since high school. I’ve had my share of pseudonyms. I’ll confess to haranguing a celebrity or two in my younger days while tittering behind a wall of anonymity. And I’ll concede the internet is the last bastion of free speech. Political and religious objectors, informants and hacktivists rely on virtual masks in order to do their very necessary, very good work.
There’s the other times anonymity is a good and righteous thing. Like people transitioning from one gender to another; why shouldn’t they be who they truly are, on the inside, when they’re online? For them and others wrongly frowned upon by society – people who are asexual, or gay in a repressive nation – the internet provides an outlet for self-expression and a place to seek community and understanding.
Not a single one of these examples is threatened by Carly’s Law.
You can go on being who you are inside. You can continue tweaking the noses of the establishment for lulz or to expose corruption. You can be cheeky, noble, annoying, opinionated, frustrating, curious, obtuse, opinionated, geeky, alternative, whatever you like. Express yourself freely.
But the moment you lie to a child because you want to meet them, face to face, and exploit their vulnerability for your own sick whims you become a criminal. Just as you would if you’d used a telephone or a hand-written letter. The great and wonderful virtues of the online world do not excuse your depravity, nor do they offer you immunity from consequence. That shouldn’t be a hard concept to grasp.
In two weeks, Nick Xenophon will seek to have a new, revised Carly’s Law enacted across the country. If passed, it will turn lying about your age to convince a child to meet you into an offence. Let’s hope that, this time, fewer people ask why it’s such a big deal.
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